Oregon’s Kiki Prottsman (@thinkersmith) on Hour of Code and the Future


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We wanted to wrap up our week long feature on Hour of Code with a view into the future and to give you all some ideas of where to go next in the coding movement.  Kiki Prottsman (@thinkersmith), a prominent voice on Computer Science across the K-12 curriculum, was kind enough to spend some time talking about the steps she is taking to continue the coding movement year round.TScloud

What is the mission of Thinkersmith?

Our mission is to introduce all ages, races and genders to the fun, passionate and creative side of computer science and computational thinking. We strive to provide a positive, low-stress, and energetic environment where any student can safely explore their high-tech curiosities. Through these ideals, we aim specifically to increase equity in the computer sciences as we work to attract and retain girls, women and other non-traditional computer science students.

We believe that computers are a tool and that they should neither replace or hinder physical activity, environmentalism, nor philanthropy.”

In your Indiegogo campaign you talk about “unplugged” lessons in computer science.  What are these “unplugged” lesson and what are the advantages of integrating these lessons into more traditional computer science lessons?

I am a traditionally trained Computer Scientist. One of the things I am sure you have noticed is there are currently not that many women in the field. When I was the chair of Women in Computer Science, I wanted to try to find out why there weren’t more girls in the field, because early on (1940′ and early 50’s) women dominated the field. By the 1980’s, boys started to get to drawn to it and assumptions were made that they were predisposed to coding. Meanwhile, girls wouldn’t even be exposed to coding until college. By the time students reached college there was a huge divide in perceived ability, not actual ability, perceived ability. As I researched further, it became more and more clear that in order to keep women interested and really believing that they could be successful, you had to present it early, before middle school when self doubt sets in.  This meant exposing girls as young as kindergarten to the concepts. At the time (2010), there was really no Computer Science curriculum for young students. Everything was being tailored for college level students. Even at K-12  education conferences, Computer Science was being discussed as a High School level course. I would actually get laughed at for daring to bring it down to the Kindergarten level and people thought that it would never happen.  What I saw was that people needed help to become passionate by watching their children code, and little kids wanting to do this as a fun activity.

KikiDemo2I started thinking how could we make these activities relatable to young children? Especially little kids who didn’t have access to computers. Also, Tim Bell had brought out his CS Unplugged items.  They were fun little activities that you could plug onto the end of high school lessons. I thought, what if I did this to create hour long lessons for kids. I started camps that were themed, like pirate day, where we would make pirate booty with their names on them in binary. We would navigate maps on the ground and it would turn out that they were finite state machines. They would be doing automata theory as 5 and 6 year olds and it was widely successful.  It took a lot of trial and error to make sure things scaled well, but the lesson we hit on really worked well.  Once students worked through 6 or 7 lessons you could really see their entire perception  of themselves as a student, just, change.  Their thinking, how they thought about their intelligence, and their ability to stick to a problem all changed. One of our lessons is simply, “This is going to be hard”. The lesson works at letting kids become comfortable with the idea of working through frustration to solve a problem. Children are so conditioned now to give up if something is hard. This lesson lets kids explore frustration by identifying frustration points with a group to demonstrate that everyone is experiencing frustration at different times.  Computer Scientists experience frustration 100 times a day.  That is how progress is made and how new things are invented! Once children realize this, their whole perception of frustration transforms, which can only be good for the rest of their lives.

You have written about the need for computer science to be thought of as a core subject in schools at all levels. The Hour of Code is a great step in raising awareness around the need, but what “next steps” do you see that schools need to take to make this more of a curricular shift vs a week long project?

With the Hour of Code we have the opinion that anything is better than nothing as far as getting kids excited about coding.  Obviously, the more exposure the better. There is a caveat, though, we firmly believe that this can be taught incorrectly and that is detrimental to the movement. With young students, if a teacher gets in their head that this is cool and wants to bring more coding into their school, there are some great steps that can happen immediately. What we have seen with teachers we are training through Thinkersmith, once they realize they can teach this, is they find ways to “sneak” it in everywhere throughout the day. Teaching through Computer Science is a great way to hit many Common Core standards across all subjects.

Products___ThinkersmithThe “unplugged” lesson are a great way to start introducing the concepts of Computer Science and then if you can get into the computer lab the next week, using sites like code.org, you can reinforce these concepts. Many of the well vetted lessons are self paced and allow for students to work at there own pace. There is a website: csisfun.com curated by Thinkersmith.  The idea behind the site is to combine all kinds of Computer Science lessons from the best people in the industry in one place. There is something for every grade and talent level. They are appealing to both boys and girls. Even just having this site as a resource to your class gives your students the ability to start exploring in the world of Computer Science.

Then next step after bringing it in individually is to start a movement and get your community demanding it. We have found that parents want these concepts in school. They just need to be shown a model of how these concepts can be integrated into the day or after school program.


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Kiki is the Executive Director of Thinkersmith and former computer science instructor at the University of Oregon.

A Member of Mensa and former Chair of Women in Computer Science, Kiki is a world-renowned specialist in computational thinking. She was recently named one of Lane County’s 20 rising stars under the age of 40 and has graced the cover of Open For Business magazine.

As a champion for responsible computing and equity in both CS employment and education, Kiki works with many organizations to improve the experience of girls and women in STEM. Her landmark work with the hands-on Traveling Circuits computer science curriculum helped Thinkersmith receive the 2013 Google RISE Award for excellence in Science and Engineering. She currently writes for the Huffington Post, sits on the Education Advisory Council for Code.org, is a member of the Advisory Board for Play-i Robotics, and is a vital member of the Leadership team for the Oregon Girls Collaborative Project.

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