Teachers Go Back To School In Summer Institute

SOCORRO, N.M. August 1, 2013– Dozens of high school and middle school teachers went “back to school” early this year. The science teachers spent a week at New Mexico Tech in the Summer Teacher Institute, polishing their computer science skills.

The Institute, which has been at Tech for six years, welcomes teachers who are involved in one of three programs: the Supercomputing Challenge, CS4All or Growing Up Thinking Scientifically, a.k.a. Project G.U.T.S.

“We need students to have programming skills,” computer science professor Dr. Lorie Liebrock said. “If we don’t get programming into the high schools, then students don’t come to college prepared.”

In 2012, New Mexico high school students took 14,369 advanced placement tests – but only 67 of those were in computer science.– and none of them registered top marks.

Liebrock said that today’s students will increasingly be asked to convert raw data into information – our world is increasingly driven by data.

“Whether our students are going to be directly involved in computer science or not, they need to be information literate and need to be able to use computers,” Liebrock said. “You need computers for office productivity, but you get further in science and engineering if you can do data analysis, model and evaluate data from our big data world.”

Chris Koch, a senior in computer science at Tech, helped organize the Summer Teacher Institute. A native of Germany, Koch was an exchange student for his senior year in high school, where he took classes in computer programming.

“I feel that learning any science – computer science or any other discipline – adds to your critical thinking skills, which is necessary,” he said. “So I think this program [the Summer Teacher Institute] is a great idea.”


Back to school!  Teachers from around New Mexico learn computer programming in preparation for the upcoming school year at New Mexico Tech in mid-July.


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Dozens of teachers from New Mexico participated in the Summer Teacher Institute at New Mexico Tech.


High school teachers get some hands-on experience with coding and programming in New Mexico Tech classrooms.

Courtesy photos

The CS4All program is more advanced – with teachers taking 500-level courses at the University of New Mexico. Those teachers had the opportunity to provide instruction to the new Supercomputing Challenge teachers during the Institute.

CSforAll is part of a national effort to promote computer science education in high schools. The program offers a comprehensive teacher professional development program in computer science, including an online course titled “Learning and Teaching Computer Science,” quarterly workshops both face-to-face and online, summer workshops focusing on pedagogy and best practice for teaching Computer Science; and a practicum experience serving as the learning coach to newer teachers.

Teachers who attended the weeklong program mainly learned two basic agent-based programming languages: Netlogo and Starlogo. When school starts up later this month, these teachers will have the basic knowledge to provide instruction to their students who will be participating in programming events, like the Supercomputing Challenge and Project G.U.T.S.

The Challenge is a year-long event in which high school students form teams, devise a programming dilemma and write code that will solve the problem. The event kicks off at Tech in the fall and ends with final reports in Los Alamos in the spring. The teams also have interim reports due in December and February.

The Summer Teacher Institute is designed to prepare teachers to be effective mentors to their students.

“The S.T.I. is about getting them started,” Liebrock said. “It’s not really about programming. It’s about computational thinking, problem solving and structuring a solution. The whole point is to have students begin with something that isn’t about syntax – like some more advanced programming languages. So we start with simple languages that slot together.”

The Supercomputing Challenge has opened the world of programming and coding to middle school and high school students since 1990. Randy Van Why, a rising sophomore at Tech, participated in the Challenge in high school and spoke to the Summer Teacher’s Institute.

“I had always been good with a computer,” Van Why said. “But through the Supercomputer Challenge, I got into the theory behind computer science and I saw a lot of interesting projects. It’s about learning about science and research and a look into mathematical modeling and computer modeling, which I found interesting.”

Van Why said the Challenge allows younger students to choose their own problem and learn how to use computing to solve problems. He said a couple of problems, as examples, are how to optimize the timing of traffic lights or how to maximize the number of roller coaster cars that can a ride can run.

“These questions are hard to answer, but they’re easy to think about,” he said. “There are interesting small projects that kids can take on. They are easy to code and fun to learn if you’re a kid.”

Van Why is among about 20 current Tech students have volunteered to help with the official kick-off in October – many of them are former Challenge participants. 

David Kratzer of Los Alamos National Laboratory is a program manager for the Supercomputing Challenge. He said that in the early years students knew more about programming than their teachers. The Summer Teacher’s Institute helps instructors become more comfortable with coding and working within a set framework.

“The Summer Institute has given them more confidence,” Kratzer said. “In two weeks, they go through the same experience that the students go through over the course of a year.”

After a week on campus in Socorro, the teachers had another week to complete their projects and present a report. They gathered in Albuquerque on Friday, July 26, for final presentations.

Kratzer said the Institute has also served as a recruiting tool; new schools have joined the Supercomputing Challenge as a result of teachers attending the training session.

Another vital aspect of the Institute is to alert teachers to the various free software services that are available. Most teachers do not have a budget to buy new software or hardware.

Liebrock gave a lecture to the Institute participants about data visualization and how to access free software services.

“Looking at numbers is a difficult way to understand what’s going on,” she said. “We look at online and freely available visualization tools. We try simple things that give them pictures back without installing or downloading software.”

– NMT –

By Thomas Guengerich/New Mexico Tech