What I Learned Giving a Computer Science Course at Stanford to High School Students
Last fall term, Stanford offered an introductory course in computer science to more than 200 talented high school students from across the country. When I first had the opportunity to be a course instructor, I was particularly drawn to the program goal to open up the Stanford experience to underprivileged high school students. Thanks to a Partnership between Stanford University and the non-profit organization National Laboratory for Equity in Education, this pilot project introduced students to Python programming, web development, and other topics such as computer architecture and security. While I was initially enthusiastic about teaching students how to code, by the end of the program I ended up learning a lot about social inequality and how elite institutions like Stanford have the resources to inspire a whole new generation of students through innovative and accessible solutions. educational programs.
During my first training session organized for teaching fellows – current Stanford students and experienced former students – I was surprised to learn that high school students would take the same course “CS 105: Introduction to Computer Science” offered to students regulars from Stanford University. I started working on my teaching plan with a bit of nervousness because these students were not only taking a rigorous course at Stanford, but they were doing it just as well despite coming from underprivileged backgrounds. However, during our first lesson together, nervousness quickly turned to excitement.
When I learned that many students were the first in their families to enroll in a college course or pursue a STEM degree, I was reminded of the National Lab for Educational Equity slogan: “Talent is evenly distributed, opportunities are not.” A student wanted to study computer science, hoping to get a well-paying job that would allow her to take care of her mother, who works multiple jobs to support her family. Another student aspired to become an astrophysicist and work on space exploration. Another student, a first-generation immigrant, wanted to be a tech entrepreneur and create products that would empower his underserved community. Many of them hoped to one day attend prestigious institutions such as MIT, Harvard, Yale and Stanford.
Before I started teaching this class, I believed that technology was doing a great job of democratizing educational opportunities. After all, many of the same programming and artificial intelligence courses I took at Stanford were available for free on MOOC (Massive Open Online Course) platforms such as edX and Coursera. “The internet has empowered anyone in the world to learn technical skills and climb the socio-economic ladder” is a story I’ve heard often in the Silicon Valley bubble, especially at Stanford, which has produced nearly one-fifth of all unicorn societies. Without a doubt, information is more readily available than ever in a world where software offers us almost infinite leverage. But my experience with this class made me realize that technology alone will not solve complex societal problems.
When some students, who were very enthusiastic at first, started to miss classes and assignments, it took me a while to figure out the problem. Students at elite institutions can often express what they want very clearly. However, high school students, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, are often reluctant to ask for help. As I began to actively contact them, I discovered that they were constantly navigating difficult circumstances that were hard to notice during our Zoom sessions. These included not having access to a reliable computer or internet connection at home; not being able to attend office hours because the schedule did not fit part-time jobs; difficulty accessing a myriad of platforms used in an online computer course; and impostor syndrome. I learned that these were just a few of the many issues they faced and wondered how effective MOOCs were in democratizing education.
After doing some research, I learned that MOOCs have massively underperformed on their promises. Approximately 96% of all MOOC participants in 2017-18 did not complete their courses. It turns out that technology, on its own, won’t magically “fix” education. On the bright side, however, I learned that the high dropout rate could be reduced by more than ten times through a scalable, human-centered sectional model that is an integral part of Stanford’s introductory computer science curriculum. In this model, which was also a feature of the pilot, students participate in weekly discussion sections led by a section head or lecturer who also grades assignments and exams. The students in my class agreed unequivocally that they wouldn’t have gotten much out of the pre-recorded lecture videos alone. Active learning during the live discussion sections, according to the students, was essential to their progress in the course.
When the day to celebrate student completion of the course arrived, I couldn’t be more proud of what the students had accomplished. I am incredibly grateful to Stanford Office of the Vice-Rector for Digital Educationthe Computer Science department and the Graduate School of Education Transform Learning Accelerator, who made this pilot project possible. This experience inspired me to further explore innovations in education and to be part of Emerson Global, where high school students from around the world are matched with mentors from major institutions such as Stanford. I look forward to seeing how the incredibly talented and bright students of today will take charge of solving the most pressing problems of our time through technology and innovation.