Beyond Pythagoras

The impact of Computer Science on STEM retention and student development.

GUEST COLUMN | by George K. Thiruvathukal

credit-public-domain-raphael-the-school-of-athensAs an educator, I am frequently asked about the role of computer science and STEM. Although computer science subject matter can serve as a main driver of STEM curriculum, the overarching challenge is that we do not implement computer science early enough in a student’s life. Ultimately, pre-high school experiences for students are crucial to the development of critical skills that will better position students for the job market.

The exposure to computer science as early as possible shapes your thinking about the world.

By the time a child reaches high school, he or she will already have been exposed to a number of career opportunities. For example, students may be pre-disposed earlier in life to pursue career paths in the medical or legal fields. For students in my generation, you were lucky to be exposed to computer science or engineering since many of these good career prospects were largely off the radar of high school counselors.

Incorporating computer science into education programs early on will improve student retention in the STEM field. In fact, involving computer science will allow for students to view STEM related tasks as more fun and memorable.

For example, I see a great opportunity to use robots as a means to provide more integrative experiences to kids, something that is simply not possible when other subjects are taught in isolation. Although we often think of robotics as otherworldly and created by computer nerds, they can also serve as a conduit for teaching many other subjects.

For example, you can learn about electricity, mechanics and mathematics by working with robots. We all know that the distance traveled by a wheel is based on number of rotations times Pi times the diameter of the wheel. Robots bring this calculation to life in a way that Euclid and Pythagoras probably never imaged, let alone the Persians who were so instrumental in creating the wheel, as we know it.

Lastly, robotics can serve as a conduit for STEM, because it is one of the few examples I have seen that challenges the STEM definition (Many variants of STEM are being proposed as I write this, one of which is STEAM that includes A=Art).

For example, when you design/build robots, you are also involving art (many design schools place great emphasis on art, especially for constructing prototypes). In our robotics programs, which unfortunately are limited to after school, we see how robotics emphasizes many subject areas that remain important. Technology and engineering do not come at the exclusion of other subjects. Rather, they simply help to make other subjects better.

Teaching computer science at an early stage is extremely important to students developing skills for the job market. For example, students that gain a head start on learning tools like Excel in their early variants (e.g. VisiCalc) can gain a leg up on others when it comes to understanding data—something that is not just of value to computer scientists.

Ultimately, having fluency with computers and being able to use them to solve problems is necessary for success in everything else. It’s a form of literacy that should be on par with every other core subject: reading, writing, mathematics and science.

Employment prospects remain stronger than ever for students, especially here in the United States. At my own institution (Loyola University Chicago), year after year I see students finding jobs in fields such as traditional software development/engineering, consulting and research. Ultimately, companies want to hire U.S. graduates.

However, our universities cannot graduate enough of them. At Loyola, despite a rock solid program, the vast majority of our students still study other “tracked” subjects such as biology or humanities. This is an example of why pre-high school experiences are so important.

Computer science is for everyone. All of us are or will soon be touched by it, and much like when you study science or literature, you are probably going to want to have an idea of how it works. Not everyone will become a master in a subject that they study. This is true in mathematics, literature and more. However, the exposure to computer science as early as possible shapes your thinking about the world, regardless of whether you ultimately pursue a position in the field or not.

With computer science well on its way to expanding our understanding of the world—and augmenting our own capabilities (e.g., machine learning), we need to establish it once and for all as a form of literacy and not relegate it to a single letter in an oddly-chosen acronym (STEM). Even if we do, we might want to make sure we add the right letters.

George K. Thiruvathukal is IEEE member professor of Computer Science at Loyola University Chicago. Write to:

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Cool Tool | Califone GH507 Gaming Headset

gh507With a variety of learning tasks being completed online in today’s K-12 classroom, teachers need hardware with a range of functions. Califone’s GH507 Gaming Headset provides such flexibility for educators who want to use computer peripherals for gaming and more. Designed specifically for student use, the headsets are cushioned and have an adjustable headband for comfortable use during extended sessions. Students can enjoy premium audio with standard 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound for solo- or team-play during game-based learning activities. The headsets offer separate game sounds and chat to enable students to react quickly to game strategies. When students aren’t gaming, they can easily unclip the microphone and separate inline controls to listen to music or videos. The stereo headphone can be plugged into any smartphone, tablet, laptop, desktop computer or Chromebook. Additionally, the headsets are compatible with Xbox One. Learn more.

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Three Lessons in Unifying University IT Systems

On-the-ground perspective from an award-winning campus IT director.

GUEST COLUMN | by Tammy Jo Martinez

credit-cherwell-softwareLike with most public institutions, here at the University of New Mexico (UNM), our IT department has faced new challenges in recent years as operating budgets have continued to shrink, while demand for services has continued to grow. Not only is UNM the largest post-secondary institution in the state, it is one of New Mexico’s largest individual employers. Our service desk supports the needs of six college campuses and the university’s hospital system – around 38,000 users in all.

Our first contact resolution rate has risen to more than 70 percent (in line with industry standards), and we are now scoring greater than a 90 percent customer satisfaction rate.

Understanding that serious changes needed to be made to not only “keep the lights on,” but also to improve operations as demand for services grew, we came to a simple realization: it’s nearly impossible to do more with less, so we must find a way to use what we have more efficiently. To achieve this goal, we had to learn three very important lessons.

Lesson 1: “Un-Silo” Our Teams

The first and most obvious opportunity to streamline operations stemmed from eliminating unnecessary redundancies. Across the department and university system, we found multiple technology platforms that served very similar functions. Multiple platforms meant duplicating work and expenses, including:

  • User training
  • Administrative overhead
  • Routine maintenance
  • Development resources required to configure and customize
  • Multiple (and duplicative) user licenses

Having developed operations using different IT management tools, we quickly realized how siloed our teams had become. Our teams had grown apart and the customers’ experiences from one IT portal to the next were wildly different, a fact they were more than willing to share with us. We needed to bring our teams back together and improve knowledge sharing to enhance the end-user experience.

The resolution quickly became obvious: we needed to find an IT service management (ITSM) solution that could empower the entire IT staff to work from a single system, managing processes and managing data from one source.

Lesson 2: Remove Barriers from Transient IT Workforce

We recognized that our IT workforce, like any university setting, was rather transient. With 150 full-time employees and more than 200 student workers, training and consistency were problematic. Additionally, many ITSM solutions required a unique license for each user. Barring use of the often illegal (and security risk-prone) practice of sharing logins and passwords, 1:1 licensing models became cost-prohibitive.

To maximize productivity without sacrificing quality, we needed an IT solution that was powerful and flexible enough to meet a wide variety of requirements, but intuitive enough to use that a workforce consisting of part-time employees could quickly learn to operate it. We also needed out-of-the-box reporting and dashboards that provided the information needed by staff to prioritize work and identify bottlenecks to effective delivery of service. We discovered available options that had concurrent-use pricing models. This was vital so that student users, who make up a majority of our IT staff, could use the solution on a floating basis.

Lesson 3: Simplify Integration, Configuration, and Customization

We realized that the digital transformation of higher education (asynchronous virtual classrooms, distance learning, etc.) meant more of our systems needed to be integrated into our existing technology platform. Rarely did these systems come from the same vendor, and the resulting incompatibilities often led to increased ticket volumes. Our developers were spending so much time putting out fires that they couldn’t focus on executing against the longer term, more integrated vision.

We found the answer in simplicity – if there were no resources available to code, we needed a way to succeed without coding. Modern IT service management tools, we found, are codeless – that is, they don’t require a developer to write code to customize or configure the solution to meet unique organizational needs. For us, this meant spending less time dedicated to getting the new tools to work, and more time to improve operations across the campus.

Resolution: Streamline Solutions for Improved Outcomes

After considering these factors, we ultimately selected IT service management software from Cherwell Software, which has allowed us to consolidate on a single ITSM platform and greatly improved our department’s ability to execute our mission. Since the relaunch of our systems, our formerly siloed IT team are effectively collaborating and sharing information, we are vastly more self-sufficient, and we can address most needs without heavy reliance on vendor or development support.

Perhaps most important, we are more effectively delivering services to our end users and have dramatically improved the experience for all our customers. Our first contact resolution rate has risen to more than 70 percent (in line with industry standards), and we are now scoring greater than a 90 percent customer satisfaction rate.

We learned that when battling budget constraints while simultaneously facing workload increases, universities must accept that some aspects of their IT operations must change to keep pace. We recommend that universities make an honest assessment of their IT operations and the technology that supports those operations—and they must be prepared to adopt a more modern and streamlined approach to succeed in this changing environment.

Tammy Jo (TJ) Martinez is the Director of Customer Support Services at University of New Mexico Information Technologies. TJ has over 20 years’ experience in the public sector IT support industry. TJ’s passion is building bridges between customers and IT by focusing on best practices to improve service delivery.  TJ received the Women In Technology Recognition award from the New Mexico Tech council for her work improving service desk performance at UNM.

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Cool Tool | Chem101

credit-chem101Here’s a classroom engagement product built specifically for college-level chemistry courses. Recently launched on the App Store and Play Store, the app allows chemistry professors to replace multiple choice clicker questions with interactive modules that, for example, ask students to respond by drawing molecular (Lewis) structures on their mobile devices. While students draw structures, the intuitive interface provides fluid animations to help visualize molecular shape and the app offers specific feedback when errors are made. Professors receive the benefit of being able to see what their class is drawing in real time including a convenient visual of the common mistakes. The Lewis structures module of Chem101 was piloted during the Fall 2016 semester at 10 schools including Carnegie Mellon University, Columbia University, and the University of Cincinnati. In a survey with over 1100 student responses, 87 percent of students indicated that Chem101 helped them learn Lewis structures, 76 percent preferred using Chem101 over any existing courseware, and 87 percent want to see the approach expanded to other topics in chemistry. “Chem101 allows my students to draw Lewis structures intuitively with very little learning curve so more time can be spent learning chemistry and less time learning the program,” says Daniel Waddell, Assistant Professor of Chemistry at the University of Cincinnati. Parent company 101 plans to expand the app to support more chemistry curriculum by next Fall. Learn more.

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Trends | Teachers’ & Principals’ Views on Equity in Education

credit-scholastic-teachers-principals-survey-2016Equity in education for all children must be a national priority, and many students face barriers to learning that come from outside the school environment. That’s what a majority of educators reveal in this new research from Scholastic, the Teacher & Principal School Report: Equity in Education. More than 4,700 public school Pre-K–12 teachers and principals acknowledge challenges in access to resources across school poverty levels. For instance, the report displays a large disparity in access to Internet/other resources out of school (65 percent of educators in high-poverty schools vs. 20 percent in low-poverty schools say these are not adequately available) and access to books at home (69 percent vs. 20 percent). Inside the classroom, educators are spending their own money to fill the gaps in resources. On average in the past year, teachers in high-poverty schools spent $672 vs. $495 spent in low-poverty schools; among principals this is $1,014 vs. $514. Items purchased included supplies, books, food, clothing, and technology apps / software. Teachers and principals also emphasize the importance of two-way communication between schools and families. With this in mind, it is notable that 75 percent of educators consider making information available in multiple formats (website, video, social media, etc.) among the most important activities for educators to do to help engage students’ families. To learn more, download the full Teacher & Principal School Report:

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