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Computer Science, PBL, and Entrepreneurship with CS Educator Greg Mittleider

Hi everyone, and welcome back to the EdTech Classroom Podcast. Thank you SO much for joining me today. Let’s learn and grow together as 21st century educators.

Today you’ll be joining me and Greg Mittleider as we discuss computer science education, project-based learning, and so much more. 

Greg Mittleider is a digital learning experience expert and an EdTech consultant who has worked with Harvard faculty throughout the University to launch blended on-campus and online computer science courses, including CS50 for Lawyers. Previously he was a K-12 computer science teacher. Greg brings expertise in translating classroom teaching to high quality online courses. He completed his Ed.M in Technology Innovation and Education at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and also holds a K-12 Business, Computer, and Information Technology certification from Saint Vincent University as well as an B.S. in Finance from The California University of Pennsylvania.

Without further ado, let’s get started.

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Maddie: Hi everyone. I’m sitting here on Zoom with my friend and computer science expert Greg Mittleider, and I already know that we’re in for a treat today. Greg has so much wisdom to share and is bringing so many innovative ideas to the field of education. 

Greg, thank you so much for joining me on the EdTech Classroom Podcast today. 

Greg: Yeah, thank you for having me. I appreciate it. This is going to be a great little session that we’re going to have here. You and I have been talking off camera about some things so I’m kind of excited to take a dive.

Maddie: Yeah, I’m excited to dive right in too. I know that you have so much wonderful insight to share. So I kind of want to just launch right in if that’s okay with you. Could you tell me a little bit about your journey from the start of your career and into this edtech / computer science space?

Greg: Yeah, so I’ve had a really interesting pathway to get to where I am now. There’s been a lot of twists and turns, but I actually started my career in finance and had worked for a number of years in industry. I really enjoyed it, and I like to think that I was successful at it, but there just came a point where I took a long view shot of myself of what I was doing, work-life balance, things of that nature. 

My wife has been a teacher ever since I met her, so we were kind of like living both of those lives. I was working 12, 14, 16 hours a day. She was a teacher, and I kind of had this internal discussion with myself when the market crashed. Do I really want to go back into this industry with all the unknowns? All the not-so-fun things that were happening.

I thought about the things of my career that I enjoyed the most and for some reason, anywhere that I’ve ever worked, I’m very inquisitive. I like to seek things out on my own and learn as much as I can about what I’m doing. So if I’m in sales, I want to know about everything that I’m selling.

What I found out is the things that I enjoy in my work the most are the management side of things, so when I broke down management, I found out that it was the education portion of that that I was interested in.

So that’s when I decided that I was going to leave industry and I wanted to go into education. Initially, I wanted to teach finance and law – things that I was very familiar with – but, I live in the state of Pennsylvania, and in the state of Pennsylvania, the certification that allows you to teach business-related topics (finance, economics, accounting), it also includes computer science. 

It’s impossible to find a teaching job in Pennsylvania, so I was hopefully applying to these finance positions, but the only available job at the time was to teach 7th graders Microsoft Word. So it was a pretty interesting way to go.

I kind of envisioned myself being this high school teacher, teaching these highly advanced topics, and I ended up teaching in a middle school with Microsoft Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Microsoft Office Suite. But, it ended up working out really well. 

That’s how I got into education in general.

Maddie: Yeah, that’s great. It’s really interesting to me when I hear about people’s career paths into either education or teaching technology. People seem to have these really roundabout career paths, which I find to be really interesting. 

I think a lot of people, their whole lives, they know that they want to be a teacher. I had friends in middle school who knew that they wanted to be teachers, and they’re teachers today. But I think what is really interesting about teaching technology, and the edtech space in general, is that a lot of people come into it from a variety of different backgrounds.

So, it’s really interesting for me to hear that you started off in finance, then you thought you maybe wanted to teach economics, finance, or law. Then you ended up going into computer science. So, it’s neat for me to hear your background and I know our listeners are going to be excited to hear that as well.

In general, I’m just really happy to be having you on the show today because of your expertise in computer science obviously, and I think that as a K-5 STEM teacher myself, I feel like we have a lot in common. We have a lot of similar passions and interests, but that being said, I don’t think that all of our listeners today are super familiar with computer science.

We have listeners who are elementary school teachers. We have listeners who are high school teachers, high school English teachers, librarians, school admin, so I’d love if you could talk a little bit about how you were able to bring computer science education to the school that you taught at.

Greg: Yeah, so this is kind of where things start to get pretty interesting. At least I like to think it’s interesting, and hopefully the listeners will as well. But, to backpedal a little bit, you’re absolutely right. 

I think a lot of times, I wish I would have gone into education right out of college. But, at the same rate, had I done that, I don’t think I would have provided the same experience for my students as I’m able to now because of all the things I’ve had access to and the experience I have working outside of the classroom, which I had to bring into the classroom.

In general, aside from teaching computer science, I see my students just as future productive members of society, so my main goal in education, whether it’s computer science or building these relationships with students that go beyond curriculum, the whole point of it is to give them as much knowledge as I possibly can about being a productive member of society when they get older. 

As much as I think it would’ve been great to go into education right out of the gate, I absolutely know that I wouldn’t have the same experience that I have now. To get back on track as to where this all came from, when I had gone into teaching the Microsoft Office Suite with the 7th graders, I did that for a year. 

It was interesting. It was my first go at teaching, but I was extremely fortunate that the people that I worked with were just very supportive and very proactive. They wanted to do different things. Me being new to education, all my experiences were based on what I had that year.

So we poked and prodded and decided what we could do to revamp this program. The Office Suite did fall into computer science within the standards of what we were teaching. And one day, I was at my desk and I was teaching Microsoft Excel, and one of my colleagues walks into the room and he says, “you’ve got to check this out.” 

He comes over to my desk and he pulls up the MIT Scratch program. And if you’re not familiar, it’s a block-based programming language that is self-contained in its own environment, and it’s a great way to teach younger students how to get the basics of programming – like developing scripts and loops and functions and things like that.

He and I stood there while my students were working, and we played with it for a couple of minutes. I just told my students, “hey – stop what you’re doing, and go to this website, and start playing around with it.” 

So the students did, and they were all excited, and they left for the day, and I went home. When that same group of students arrived at class the next day, they said, “hey can we do that thing that we did yesterday?”

And I was kind of like “oh what thing was that?” And it was the Scratch program. They were all about it. So I let them do it the next day and then the next day. I tell everybody that it was a great experience for about two weeks, and then my colleague and I were thinking about it, and we were like “man, I’m probably going to get fired over this because I’m not teaching my curriculum.” 

Luckily, we had gone down and talked to the principal to cover our bases, and they just got super excited about it. They were all about bringing it in, so they let us create. We had an emergency board meeting to change our curriculum. We did all that fun stuff, and I ended up teaching just that for the rest of the year.

So this is probably November-ish maybe. We taught the Scratch program for the rest of the year, and where the twist comes is that at the time, Scratch itself didn’t have any curriculum. So I actually reached out to the Scratch team at MIT, and they responded to me. I essentially asked them, “we found this tool of yours. It’s fantastic. Our students love it. Do you have any curriculum?” 

And they responded back, and this is probably 2014, and at the time, they said they were still developing things, they had a lot of good stuff in the works, but there is a proven program that’s out there now – it’s called CS50 at Harvard now. A gentleman by the name of David Malan, he’s the professor of that course.

So I actually reached out to Professor Malan, and asked him the same question. I said I saw that he had a curriculum for this, and I said, “what are your suggestions?” 

At the time, I didn’t know this. So for anybody who isn’t familiar, the CS50 course – stands for Computer Science 50 – is currently taught at Harvard University, and it’s the undergraduate course for Introduction to Computer Science. 

It’s the most famous course on campus. It generally gets about 800 students – a little bit more than 800 students – so roughly about ⅓ of students that go through Harvard take the course. Maybe the numbers have gotten bigger since I was there, I’m not sure. 

But, it also has an offering on EdX, and there’s over 1,000,000 students enrolled perpetually on the EdX program. So this is a huge course.

After reaching out to Professor Malan, I kind of took a dive, and that’s when I personally got really excited about computer science. I had taken courses in my undergrad, a couple of programming courses, but now it was full-throttle. I was soaking up as much as I could. I was taking courses at the local college. 

I was finding any online resources that I could, and what ended up happening after that was Professor Malan and his team were actually in the process of creating a high school adaptation of the CS50 course. 

So they were taking all the materials and content that were offered to the undergraduates, and they were going to offer it to high school students. Because I was in this process, they asked me, they said, “hey this is what we’re doing. 

We’re looking for a pilot group of teachers to bring this to their school districts and teach the AP course, which falls in line with the Computer Science Principles AP course which was going to be brand new I think for the 2016 year. 

So all of this work that was being done by Professor Malan and his team was being done in preparation for the 2016 rollout. I was extremely fortunate to be a part of that pilot class, and that’s kind of where things took off.

I just worked with them. I brought the CS50 content into my classroom. I had actually moved from 7th grade to the 8th grade for the next year, and what we did was we kept the 7th grade content the same. 

So when I moved to the 8th grade, the teacher that back filled my 7th grade position continued to teach Scratch. So now we took the Microsoft Office Suite off the table for 7th grade, taught Scratch in 7th grade, and we actually taught code.org and things in 6th grade. So now, we’re starting to build out this program, just completely changing the district.

What I ultimately did was I didn’t teach the full CS50 content because obviously the rigor is designed for high school students – 11th grade, 12th grade. I brought a lot of the principles down to my 8th graders to build that foundation for when they move into the high school. 

It just ended up taking off like wildfire because our high school had offered computer science courses at the high school level. I believe they had the Java APA course. They had some Oracle courses, a web design course – these are generally courses that were taken by upperclassmen. Not necessarily freshmen or sophomores. 

And believe it or not, that year that I taught 8th grade, the students that went on to 9th grade, that had my foundations course, they all took the upper level courses as freshmen and just blew it out of the water. 

Maddie: Wow, that’s incredible. 

Greg: The overarching idea here is that A) we were just really excited to bring these programs in, but what we were really finding is that computer science is not a matter of whether it’s difficult to learn, but when you’re introduced to it. 

We found that we were teaching students at younger levels, just materials that a few months before, people would have said, “you can never do that. That’s not possible.” 

And we kept pushing. So the next year, the content went down a little bit further. 5th grade. And, I left the district in 2017, and I’ll tell you about that in a minute or two, but after I left, I believe they were teaching Scratch to maybe the 3rd grade. And kind of starting that process from there.

So it’s incredible. I’m always a person who is looking to move forward and to do bigger and better things, so when I see something like that happen, where the whole district has an opportunity to take advantage of learning something new and different and kind of revamping. 

And you’re in computer science too, so could you imagine going back in time and having access to something like that, like Scratch when you were in 3rd grade? Can you imagine where you’d be right now?

Maddie: I think about that all the time. Even when I’m teaching my kindergarteners unplugged coding or pre-reader robotics, I think all the time how incredible it would be to have had that opportunity. 

I wasn’t introduced to computer science until I was in college, which I think is even younger than a lot of teachers who end up going into elementary STEM and computer science. I think at a lot of schools, instead of hiring teachers who have experience or background in STEM, there are existing classroom teachers who then get pushed into these STEM roles, who are known for incorporating technology in their classrooms.

I feel fortunate that I was able to take computer science classes in college, but it would have been very incredible to have been able to take a Scratch class in third grade.

Greg: Yeah, and the university course, every semester that it is offered in the fall, Professor Malan still runs a poll question that asks – because everybody feels like everybody else is a master in computer science and they are the ones that are new to it…

So he runs a poll: What kind of experience do you have in high school? And it turns out, generally about 70% of students, even at Harvard undergrad, have never taken a computer science course prior to coming into college. 

And statistically, if you go out and you look at the code.org’s and the other sites like that that provide this information, the psychological theory behind the statistics of that is that so many students who take it in middle school, take it in high school, but the drop off between middle school to high school and then the further drop off from high school to college is that…

When you’re in middle school, grades don’t – I don’t want to say they’re not important – but it’s kind of like when you get to high school, you just start fresh. So middle school is a great time to introduce these things because students are still exploring, they’re still figuring these things out. 

Because if students don’t have computer science by the time they go to the high school, it’s the real deal. GPAs matter. Whether or not you get into college is based on those metrics, so students are going to avoid taking courses that they don’t think they’re going to do well in if they’re exploratory. 

Obviously forever students have always wanted to take AP Math, Statistics, Physics or things like that. But if you really think about it, why is that? It’s because students have had access to math courses all their life. These are just extensions of that. They already understand the basics of mathematics, and they’re able to take all these advanced math courses.

But for computer science, if you’ve seen 0 computer science when you’re in high school, you would probably opt to take an AP Physics course over an introductory computer science course because of the fear of bringing down your GPA.

Then when you go into college, it’s even worse because now you’re kind of thinking like, “well, this would affect my ability to get a job. So do I really want to roll the dice on that?” 

So our whole process – and this is what I’m doing today with a lot of the work that I do – is that the younger that you can introduce this to students, this will hopefully just push the entire bar for everybody so that that 70% of students who are coming into college saying that they’ve never had computer science education, hopefully we can get that down to 20%, 10%.

There’s always going to be some restriction why folks can’t – like barriers to access – but you know, those that do have the ability for access, we have to get it to them so we can start shifting all these lines.

That’s what we found about offering it at middle school and how it affects later grades. Now, where my transition happened, I told you I left the school district that I was in.

Through the work that I was doing with the CS50 team, they were fantastic to me. They treated me very well. And the things that I was doing at my school turned out really well. So it became a very good relationship. 

I ended up traveling with them for – I mentioned that we had this pilot class of educators that did the first year of the AP course (the high school adapted course) – and for that, we actually – that group of pilot educators – we went and had a week long professional development training out in Redmond, Washington. 

It was on Microsoft’s campus, and I was there as a participant. Fast forward two years, simply working with the Harvard team in general, eventually they asked me to take a step up, and over the summer time, they said, “hey, remember how we did the professional development session in Redmond? We’re going to do one in San Diego, and would you like to come out as a CS50 representative.” 

Of course, I thought it was the greatest thing ever. I had an opportunity to go out and be on the other side of the fence and help the educators, as opposed to being one of them that was in there. That’s really what changed my life because teaching in a classroom is fantastic, and I still do today in some form (we can talk about that later if you’d like).

The idea of teaching in a classroom when you’re teaching 20 – 25 students at a time is wonderful, and you love that opportunity, but to then have the opportunity to have the opportunity to teach the teachers that were then going to go out and teach these students 5 times a day.

So now, it’s such a cool thing to see that if you put me in front of 100 educators that 1000s of students are going to be impacted by that. And I’m not saying that when I stand up there and talk that it’s me directly that’s doing it, but I like being a part of the process. Obviously there’s a great team. Any time I travel with the CS50 team, everyone there is fantastic and brings their own thing to the table, but being a part of that process is just lifechanging.

That’s what drove me to be where I’m at today. I did things like that. I traveled with the team in my spare time, and then eventually, I think it was in the middle of 2017, they essentially just asked me to come work full-time. I left my position teaching at the middle school, and I moved to Cambridge. 

I worked on campus and I worked with the CS50 team at Harvard for two years. 

Maddie: That’s awesome. What you’re saying about coaching teachers is something that I spend a lot of time thinking about. My role at my school is that I’m half edtech coach, where I work closely with teachers where I help them embed technology in their curriculum, and then the other half I’m a K-5 STEM teacher. 

I love teaching. I love working with students in my classroom, and I’m so excited by the possibility of being able to help other teachers incorporate these new, exciting, innovative ideas in their classrooms. Like you’re saying, it is a really neat experience to be a part of that process. 

I think that that’s one of the main reasons why I wanted to start this podcast… is to be able to connect teachers who are listening right now to educators like you who are acting as coaches and people that they can collaborate with and look up to in terms of the different exciting things that they’re doing in the field of education.

So it’s neat to hear that that’s something that you really enjoyed about that role.

Greg: Oh yeah, I loved it. I still do. I still have that opportunity so it’s great.

Maddie: Which, speaking of, could you talk a little bit about all the projects that you’re working on right now. I just think that you are up to some pretty amazing things. 

Greg: I am. I am extremely fortunate. Every day I wake up, I think, “wow this is pretty crazy. I get to do some cool stuff.” It’s wild. I worked with the team at the university for two years, and while I was there, I was very fortunate to get accepted into the Graduate School of Education, where you and I had taken some classes together and graduated together.

But one of the courses that I took there, Professor John Richards taught an entrepreneurship course. It was the first time that I’ve ever really seen a take on applying the entrepreneurial aspect to education, and I had never really seen that first hand. That opened my eyes.

John Richards had a course in the fall and then a course in the spring. The course in the fall was laying the groundwork for how entrepreneurship works in the edtech space and then the course in the spring, we had actually partnered up with corporations and edtech startups. We were doing consulting work for them.

That’s where it really opened up my eyes, where wow, we could really do some stuff here and there’s a big reach. Since then, I’ve been consistently consulting with edtech companies outside of the university. That’s a part of what I do today. I work with a lot of cool companies that are bringing new products to the table, that are bringing new curriculum to the table.

The space where they want to operate – and this is unique to computer science I think – you have two sides to the computer science application as it applies to education. Sometimes you get folks who are absolutely brilliant, and they come up with a product and they say, “I want to use this for education.” 

Then the educator-side of me looks at it, and is like, “yes, this is absolutely a brilliant product, but I don’t see any educational value. Or, it needs to be tweaked this way. Or, we could do this.” And that’s kind of where I try to bridge the gap for a lot of these companies.

What I’ll do is… folks will come to me with a product and say, “would this work in a classroom?” or “how will we market this? Or who will we market this to?” And then there are some companies that really have everything together. 

I’m really impressed with a colleague of ours, Andrew – he’s working with a company called BrainCo, and they’re doing some exciting things. I’ve worked with their company in the past. I still do. I still talk with them often.

Some of the technologies they’re coming out with are the perfect blend of technology as it is applied to education. They also have physical products. If anybody’s not familiar with BrainCo, look them up. A lot of the work they’re doing pushes even the computer science out of the computer science classroom and translates to the actual science classroom.

They’re doing things with prosthetics, wearables like headbands and virtual reality, things of that nature. That’s one part of what I get to do.

Another part of what I’m doing, and is something that we have a shared interest in, is project-based learning. I’ve been working to develop some courses that we’ve actually deployed. 

Historically, whenever I had learned computer science in the past, it had been through an institution like college and whatnot or even when I taught with other educators in the high school space. 

A lot of the time it seems like computer science is being taught for the purpose of teaching computer science. For example, this is the language of C – learn C. I’m going to teach you Java – learn Java. I think that that’s maybe what is not appealing to a lot of folks. 

You don’t really see the big picture. What am I doing here? Why am I doing this?

So I spent a lot of time while I was at the university (and now we’re applying this) to come up with interesting ways to teach computer science. The courses that we’re developing now – so for example we created one that’s coding for entrepreneurs – this is a take from John Richards’ class, but we’re applying a coding backbone to it besides just talking about the sales and corporation side of it.

I work with a group of folks in Hawaii and we have access to a high school there. We brought a computer science course there. We hyped it up. We did a really good job hyping it. We were scared that we were going to have less than 10 students and we ended up having 52 and a waitlist. 

What we did is… rather than bringing the students together and saying, “let me show you how to make a website” or “let me teach you how to code,” we first posed the question of: “what would you want to do if you were an entrepreneur?” Would you want to create a service, an app, a website, a hardware website? What would you want to do? 

We brainstormed on that for a bit, and then we took these students and we pushed them in a direction they wanted to go to do these things. If students wanted to build something web-based, we would show them how to build websites. 

Obviously, we’re not turning them into master whiz coders overnight, but we’re at least laying the groundwork, and it was wildly successful. Students just hang on the end of the seat for this because they’re so excited to see the end result first and then say, “okay how do we do that?”

We had one student in particular who is very successful. She’s in 11th grade. She’ll be a senior this year. She is an artist. We taught her how to do a little bit of graphic design, and she took the ball and ran with it. She was designing her own things.

She designs something that is called “swag.” Companies like Facebook, Google, Microsoft all have stickers and t-shirts and things like that. It’s the logos that go onto those things. It’s not always the standard, same logo – it could be something different or a phrase.

This girl was creating swag and she was selling it to corporations, and by the end of the class, she was operating in 15 states and she was also doing business in Canada, so she was global.

Maddie: That’s incredible!

Greg: Yeah, so we were super excited for her. Ultimately what ended up happening is that we did this as a pilot course to see what would it look like. We had 52 students, and we thought we were going to have ten. So we were 5x over. And as soon as we wrapped, the emails started coming in.

“When are you going to do it again? When can I get my son in? When can I get my daughter in?” So we are going to run it three more times this coming school year. We’re also going to create other courses that are similar project-based. They’ll have a different theme, but same concept.

That’s where we’re moving now is those types of courses. 

Maddie: This is so interesting to me because like you mentioned, project-based learning is also something that I’m really passionate about, but I haven’t heard of too many computer science teachers who are teaching CS through this project-based learning lens. I just think it’s really neat that this is something that you’re exploring. 

It’s something I’ve tried to do in my classroom with my K-5 students. Whenever I taught computer science this year, I really tried to teach it through a lens of social good and looking at tying my curriculum to the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals.

For example, with my fifth grade students, I teach them how to code drones to do transect mapping and to survey animal populations. Or, I teach them how you might use a Mars rover – or create a robot and send it to Mars – so you can explore unchartered territories. 

I really liked this idea of giving my students something that they can visualize because I think that this end result that you’re talking about is really important to help students feel passionate about the work that they’re doing, but also so they can understand how they can apply it to life outside of school.

When I was going through the K-12 school system, in high school, so often I’d complain and be like, “when am I going to use this? It has no practical application.” But I think what you’re bringing to your high school students shows that computer science really has so many valuable takeaways for a variety of different industries.

The example that you gave about the swag – designs and stuff – somebody who is interested in graphic design might not necessarily realize that they can take their business to the next level if they do have a computer science skillset. 

It’s just really neat to hear that that is something you’re focusing on, and it’s obviously a big hit if so many students are hoping to take it in the future. 

Greg: Yeah, and just a thought here for the listeners – I think that if you develop curriculum with standards in mind, I think you kind of handcuff yourself out of a lot of creativity. 

The approach that we have is… we create the course first and then we backfill it with standards. So we try to understand this big vision of what we want to do and then, once you’re doing some things on a scale like that, it’s very easy to backfill it. 

If there’s anybody out there who is looking for new ideas and things to do, I’d say come up with a concept and build the idea first. Then, backfill it with whatever you need to do to get it to go live. Maybe that’s not the best advice. I don’t know how anyone else operates.

But for me, it works great.

Maddie: I think that’s a really great idea. And I think even more than that, it’s so important to be listening to your students’ interests. I think what’s really neat about what you’re doing is that so many high school students are really interested in entrepreneurship and activism right now. 

I think that that generation of students just has this very deep passion for building businesses. Maybe this is largely because of social media – but there’s this huge interest in starting your own thing. And then with activism too.

It’s neat that you’re able to design a course that has standards embedded in it, but is also something that kids are excited about outside of school. There’s this element of passion that kids are able to bring to it because you’re actually listening to their voices and giving them this element of choice too where they’re able to explore projects that they care about.

Greg: You know that brings me to another topic that I want to touch on here that I think is actually interesting. 

I live in Pittsburgh. I live in Pittsburgh now, and this is where I was born and raised. I’ve lived elsewhere throughout my life. Most recently I was in Cambridge, and now I’m back here. Pittsburgh is now becoming a big tech hub. We have Facebook. We have Google. I believe there’s a Microsoft office here.

We had access to these folks while I was teaching, so when I was teaching at the middle school, I met a gentleman who works at Google, and he invited me down to the headquarters and we did lunch. Really nice guy.

And we were talking about education.

There’s a lot of learning that happens even when you leave the university to go work at these companies. So when I was meeting with my friend at Google, we were talking about that. If it’s such a process for Google to try to go out and find talent based on their experience in university, you got to go out and go fishing to see who performed the best. 

Then you got to figure out what kind of programming and what kind of background because maybe one university prioritized one kind over the other. So you have to go through these weeds to get the best talent on your team and in your industry. 

So I said to him: why doesn’t Google just create a college? You get those folks who have never taken computer science at that level and that’s great, but you also have students who come out of high school knowing that that’s what they want to do. 

They don’t necessarily want to be side-tracked. They just want to take computer science courses and then they’re going to go out and work.

When is Google going to create Google University? You’re 18 years old. Come intern with us for a year and a half / two years. You’re going to get your feet wet and get up and running. Now you have this perfect prototype as an employee.

He kind of laughed it off like “yeah that’s coming down the pipe.” 

I read that Oracle is now building – they’re spending some crazy amount like $60 million to build a high school – on one of their campuses.

Maddie: A high school?

Greg: Yeah, I believe that Oracle is building a high school on Oracle’s campus. I heard that like a year or two ago.

Apple offers all kinds of free coding camps. Altogether I just wonder what computer science education is going to look like in the future and how that’s going to happen. In particular, I mentioned this to you off camera, but there’s a university called 42. 

It’s for students who know that all they want to do is computer science. You graduate high school. You apply to 42. If you’re accepted, it’s free. I believe there’s a campus in Palo Alto and a campus in France. 

They essentially send you a plane ticket, and you arrive. And once you arrive on campus, you find a desk and that’s your work station. It’s all self-directed work. There’s no professors. There’s no handing in assignments.

You work and you work your way through these puzzles and you learn how to program. It’s a fascinating thing because there’s really no end to it. You don’t get a degree from 42.

You take a progressive set of courses that progress your skills – whether you want to go web design, backend, whatever you want to do – and all of these companies track student progress. Once you get to a certain point at this university, these companies will start reaching out to you and now you’re getting job offers.

Maddie: Ideas like this 42 University are really bringing to light a lot of the reasons that we need to reimagine higher education. 

It can be really hard for a lot of students to justify the large amount of student loans and debt that can come with going to a four-year university. It’s interesting that there are these other examples that are emerging that are preparing students for careers in specific industries.

Which then leads me to start asking questions… maybe a little existential… but like what is the purpose of higher education? All that big rabbit hole there.

We say this in edtech a lot, but so much that we’re doing in education is preparing students for jobs that don’t even exist yet. I think that that is going to become increasingly more true as we get farther into the future.

Greg: If you would have told somebody 10 years ago that you were going to be an Expert Drone Operator, you’d probably have no idea what they were talking about. I don’t know how long ago drones were created, but think about the things that we say now.

Facebook me. I’ll see you Zoom. The things that we say. The things that we do. If you could go back 15 years, if you could record a conversation of people today and take it back 15 years, they’d be like, “what is going on in the future?”

It seems so weird to us now. We don’t think anything of it because we saw the evolution of it live. But could you imagine?

It’s interesting. It’s scary. It’s exciting.

Maddie: I spend a lot of time wrestling with the fact that I am a STEM teacher who incorporates screens in my classroom, but I am also very aware of some of the negative implications that come with too much screen time for young children. 

I spend a lot of time thinking about how in my role as a computer science teacher I can help teach kids to build healthy relationships with technology. I think that that’s why I do a lot of project-based learning in my classroom because I want my students to understand that they can use technology as a tool to create something really wonderful and powerful, rather than as this means for consumption.

I think what you’re saying about thinking about what the future of technology looks like, I think that in a lot of ways it’s much more important for us to be teaching kids and students skills like problem-solving and creative thinking and critical thinking.

Obviously right now, technical skills are really important in computer science, and I think long term it will continue to be increasingly more important to be teaching students these “21st century skills” that we’re always talking about. 

Before I end this episode, I like to ask everybody that I interview a series of questions. My first one that I want to ask you is: What advice do you have for teachers that are looking to incorporate more technology or are maybe interested in starting a computer science program at their school? What advice would you have for those teachers?

Greg: I would say if you’re starting computer science, you’re going to have to sit down with your colleagues to see what is possible. But there are a lot of great resources out there. For example, code.org, Khan Academy, all these things are free resources if you want to start teaching elementary students.

If familiar with Scratch, or if not familiar, Scratch is probably best for third grade and above. But there’s a thing called Scratch Junior. A friend of mine teaches kindergarten and he teaches kindergarteners how to code using Scratch Junior. He doesn’t teach them the functions. He teaches them based on color and pattern recognition.

The students don’t really get the logic behind it, but they’re getting basic usage. That’s a great starting point. You got to figure out the roadmap from where you want.

One of the things that I mentioned with the 8th graders was that when they were 9th graders they were definitely more advanced. Definitely keep that in mind.

Say you’re in a situation where you have courses at the high school and you want to build out a middle school program, you need to think about the long view: how is this going to affect those other courses?

The great thing about it is that those 9th graders took all those upper level courses, but the not great thing about it is that by the time they were juniors, they didn’t have anymore courses to take. They had mastered them all and they had received all the certificates. They had passed the exams.

You definitely need to think long term. The suggestion that I have is that every school should be teaching AR, VR, and blockchain. That’s where the future is going and I don’t see a lot of school districts taht are doing that. 

I know there are select schools. There is an advanced magnet school in California that teaches high schoolers about compilers. Talk about signing me up and don’t give me any coffee and see how long I can stay awake.

If you’re looking for the next best thing, even if you’re a high school teacher and you’re looking for exploratory things, AR and VR and blockchain. Without letting the cat out of the bag, there are folks that I work with that are doing significant things. All I can tell you that this group of people is doing something with AR and VR right now that in 5 years is going to change the entire world and the way that we use technology.

My advice would be teach and learn as much AR and VR capabilities as you can because there’s going to be a lot of opportunity down the road.

Maddie: Totally, and I fully believe that any team you are is going to be doing really great things. For those that are interested in AR and VR, I’d really recommend checking out Jeremy Bailensen’s work. I believe he has a book called Experience on Demand. He’s the big VR guy at Stanford who does a lot related to VR in athletics, VR in education. 

In the episode transcription, I’ll be sure to include a link to the book for those of you who want to check it out. He’s a really great place to start if you aren’t too familiar with AR / VR but want to learn more about its application. 

Which brings me to… how do you stay up to date on education technology news? Do you like to read books? Do you like to listen to podcasts? Is it through interacting with people? How do you stay up to date on edtech and computer science news?

Greg: That’s again where I feel extremely fortunate to be in the position that I am. I’m blessed with the fact that pretty much everybody that I talk to everyday is people out there in industry and in computer science. I’m constantly having this discussion. 

Literally from the time I wake up to the time I go to bed, I’m talking to people about furthering computer science education or the technologies themselves or things out in industry.

In that regard, I wish that I could pass that knowledge onto you all. Like I said, I feel blessed for that. Aside from that, general publications.

The tough thing about computer science education is that folks like you and I and your listeners that want to be… we need to be the ones that are pushing the envelope. We need to be the ones telling others: this is where it’s going. 

That’s probably a bit of good advice. If you’re listening right now, don’t feel like you have to hangout and hope that you get information elsewhere. If you want to be the one to pump the information, go out and learn as much as you can. This is unchartered territory. 

You think about the things that you and I are talking about, the things we learned at the ed school, the things we do out and about, and then when you think about computer science education when you were in high school. It was just a standard. You show up. You learn Java. We’re seeing things evolving.

Maddie: And how can our listeners find you if they want to learn more about your work or they want to chat with you?

Greg: My LinkedIn page is up. It’s not too glorious. I kind of slapped it together. You can message me. It’s Greg Mittleider when you Google LinkedIn.

Maddie: I’ll be sure to put a link to your LinkedIn in this episode description so that people can find it easily. That’s all I have prepared today. Are there any last things you want to share before we wrap up?

Greg: No, I just am super excited about this. I love computer science education. I hope that everyone listening does as well. It’s infectious. The more that I get involved, the more that I want to do. I hope that you all share the same passion. Obviously you do Maddie and the folks we surround ourselves with as well. Again, reach out to me if I can be of any assistance.

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