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Tech Savvy: Learning a new language

A new class at Brainerd High School for the 2016-17 school year is teaching students an in-demand language: computer programming. The yearlong Computer Science Principles class, taught by Donovan Diede, features a heavy emphasis on coding, but al...

Brainerd High School teacher Donovan Diede (standing) addresses his Computer Science Principles class in the BHS media center. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch
Brainerd High School teacher Donovan Diede (standing) addresses his Computer Science Principles class in the BHS media center. Spenser Bickett/Brainerd Dispatch

A new class at Brainerd High School for the 2016-17 school year is teaching students an in-demand language: computer programming.

The yearlong Computer Science Principles class, taught by Donovan Diede, features a heavy emphasis on coding, but also exposes to a variety of computer science concepts.

The class comes to BHS through Project Lead the Way, a nonprofit organization that develops science, technology, engineering and mathematics curricula for schools. The high school has participated in Project Lead the Way for a few years, Diede said, and has incorporated a few other classes from the organization.

Diede went through an intensive two-week training program last summer to be able to teach this new class, he said. He's a math teacher and has taught everything from ninth-grade algebra to Advanced Placement Calculus. Computer Science Principles deals a little bit with math, he said, in talking about binary and hexadecimals.

"There's a little bit of math that we bring into it at different times," Diede said. "But that's not an emphasis, necessarily."

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The goal of the class is to expose students to computer science in general, Diede said. There's no coding in traditional classes, he said, except for a video game design class, which a few students in Computer Science Principles are taking concurrently. There's also some coding and programming involved with the BHS Robotics team.

"Beyond that, kids don't have a lot of computer science options," Diede said. "I think that's true of most schools. Computer science is one of those that's really hit-and-miss, district-to-district."

Coding popularity has increased and declined over the years, Diede said, and is currently at a point where it's popular and cool again. Organizations like Code.org are exposing students to coding who may not normally get the opportunity to learn about coding.

"This is an introduction," Diede said. "Really, it's the first time most of them have seen real coding of any sort."

Senior Max Hill heard about the class when registering for classes last year. He took a computer programming class before, he said, and had been interested in a possible career in computer science.

"It just sounded really interesting and I heard that it was going to be a really cool class," Hill said.

So far, the class has lived up to Hill's expectations, he said. He's learned a lot about coding and other aspects of computer science.

"It seems a lot more interesting than I thought," Hill said. "It's a lot more in-depth than I thought it would be."

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Hill has enjoyed working on the different projects in the class, he said, especially when he's been able to write code. For now, he's interested in taking more computer science classes in college.

Diede has always had an interest in coding and taught a computer programming class at another school district. Students who take this class could also take the Advanced Placement computer science test after completing the class, he said.

During the course of the year, students have shown constant growth, Diede said. When the class started, a good chunk of the students had never written code, he said. Now, those students are writing fairly elaborate programs.

The first project in the class has been the most popular, Diede said. Students used Scratch, a simple online coding program to drag and drop certain elements to create their own game, he said. Students also used a program to develop their own app for the Android operating system.

"Some of them had really creative, fun games," Diede said.

The first unit of the class, which encompasses about two-thirds of the year, is spent on coding, Diede said. Students start with the Scratch coding program before advancing to the Python programming language, he said. Students learn the mechanics of coding, as well as the terminology used in different coding languages.

The second unit focuses on the internet in general, Diede said. Students learn about the mechanics and protocols behind the internet, as well as some cryptography and security basics.

"How do we keep these communications safe when we're connecting to Amazon," Diede said.

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In a class of 23 students, there are two students who are so advanced, they could probably teach the class themselves some days, Diede said. Several other students are very solid, he said, and overall, the stronger coders have previous experience with the BHS Robotics team. The class is structured to give students independence to learn at their own pace.

There's only one girl in the almost entirely male class, Diede said. Increasing diversity in STEM fields is a big focus of Project Lead the Way, he said, because women and minority groups are underrepresented in those fields. He's struggling to figure out how to market the class to a variety of different student groups, he said, in order to develop more diversity.

"Trying to find that way to reach out to different groups that you maybe don't cross paths with enough, consistently," Diede said. "I don't know what the answer to that is, but that is a point of emphasis that we do talk about quite a bit."

The class has talked a lot about online resources for the students who may want to do more coding after the end of the school year, Diede said. Some of the juniors and seniors in the class have started thinking about taking more computer science courses in college, he said.

The class is a great idea, Diede said, because it provides students with an opportunity they didn't have before. There's a big need for careers in computer science, he said, and it's a huge market with great pay and lots of openings.

Spenser Bickett
Spenser Bickett

Related Topics: BRAINERD HIGH SCHOOL
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