A Winning Strategy: Teaching Students and Cultivating an Interest in Computer Science

Oct 6, 2011 4:20 PM ET

Microsoft Unlimited Potential Blog

Combating viruses, saving the lives of expectant mothers, and retrieving food from a warehouse controlled by an evil dictator; it’s not just fun and games in teacher Pat Yongpradit’s computer science classes at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, Maryland. Students in his class are challenged to make sense of complicated algorithms and complex data structures while learning to design and develop their own video games that relate to real life issues. However, the biggest challenge in Yongpradit’s class and other science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) classes rests on the shoulders of the teacher; in maintaining students’ interest to continue their STEM studies.

That challenge to maintain student interest in STEM can be daunting. Our recent commissioned survey through Harris Interactive asked college students studying STEM and parents of K-12 students what can be done to inspire and motivate students to study STEM subjects. Results indicated more than half (57%) of STEM college students say that before their college experience, a teacher or class got them interested in STEM. Of the students, females were more likely to say a teacher influenced them (68% compared to 51% of males). Males cited games or toys got them interested in STEM (61% compared to 29% of females).

In the big picture of women in STEM careers, the U.S. Department of Commerce reports women hold less than 25% of STEM jobs despite the fact that women have increased their share of the overall workforce. For Yongpradit, getting girls excited about technology is the biggest obstacle he encountered in his classroom; however, he faced this challenge willingly. He noticed a handful of females who were showing talent in computer science were not continuing on past the introductory classes. Determined to do something to inspire his female students, Yongpradit and two of his students created the Springbrook Women in Technology club to show his female students there were others as interested and excited about technology as they were. The creation of the Springbrook Women in Technology Club earned Yongpradit winning titles at the Microsoft Partners in Learning 2010 U.S. and Worldwide Innovative Education Forums for his creative use of technology in engaging students and inspiring them to learn. Four years after the club’s inception, the club has more than 30 members, almost all of whom have gone on to advanced technology classes. The two co-founders of the club are now sophomores at Cornell University and University of California, Berkeley, studying engineering, computer science, and mathematics.

“The biggest effect is making girls feel that it is perfectly normal for them be interested in technology and to want to pursue it later in life,” said Yongpradit.

Yongpradit’s computer science classes also naturally draw a number of male students who want to create their own video games and build and program robots.

“We make a variety of games, from text adventures on the computer to side-scrolling platformers for the Xbox 360 to touch-enabled puzzles on the Windows Phone.  Later this year, we will be creating applications for the Kinect,” he said.

More than just games and robots, the class is 90 percent learning through experience. Yongpradit structures the class to give his students enough background to be competent when they are working on a project. His student, Jacen Sherman, 15, knows he’s lucky to attend a school that offers a computer programming class. This past June, he won first prize in the Microsoft Kodu Cup for his game Vortex. Encouraged by his teacher and his experience attending the student technology competition Imagine Cup as a prize, Jacen is considering both a career in technology education and robotics.

“He shares game ideas with me all the time and asks for feedback.  We sometimes just sit around at lunch and brainstorm together,” said Yongpradit “His heart has always been into technology, but now he sees how what he creates can really help people.”

Yongpradit’s heart has always been into technology and teaching, he is constantly seeking out opportunities to improve his teaching practice to benefit his students. Following his wins at the two Microsoft Innovative Education Forums, he was inspired to incorporate lessons in addressing social causes around the world into game design. He’s also been invited back to the U.S. Innovative Education Forum as a judge which he says improved how he structures his innovative teaching activities, enhancing his impact on his students.

Yongpradit’s dedication and influence is working at Springbrook High School. In the last three years, the number of introductory-level computer science classes has doubled, from three offerings to six with a total growth from 90 students to almost 200. The ratio of males and females in the introductory classes has stayed the same at around 40 percent of females to 60 percent males, but the number of females in the upper level courses has increased by about 15 percent.  The school has also increased its Advanced Placement computer science offerings from one class to two. He cites interest, challenge, creation, and being a part of something exciting as the biggest influences on his students to pursue STEM studies. 

“Students are interested in the material not only because it is relevant [video game development and robotics], but because they appreciate the challenge and the accomplishment that comes with creating an actual product, “he said.

Yongpradit said he constantly promotes STEM careers by showing students the benefits and opportunities available to them by studying STEM He talks about the role of computer science in the technology that they use every day and how the very things they are learning are helping people all over the world.

“The atmosphere of the class is exciting and lively,” he said. “They see the connection between what they learn and what is going on outside of the classroom and they feel like they are a part of something bigger than themselves.”

In the game of inspiring students to pursue a STEM education and career, Mr. Yongpradit can consider himself a winner, but the challenge will continuously evolve as will the future of STEM.

Editor’s note: About STEMtember

For millions of students around the world September is back-to-school time, and to coincide with the new academic year we’re launching a month long set of announcements and events focused on promoting awareness of STEM and its importance. We’re using the hashtag #STEMtember to pull together STEM related content, news and opinions on Twitter throughout the month. 

We’ve also released the findings from two surveys we commissioned to discover the views of parents and students on how we can encourage more people to study STEM subjects.

You can read the full summary of findings here.

Got a comment on this post, the research findings, or STEM in general? We’d love to hear your views either through the comments on this post or why not share your views on Twitter using the hashtag #STEMtember.