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|Award for Teaching Excellence Recipient: Robert Luciano|
Robert Luciano, a twenty eight year teaching veteran, has taught computer science (CS) for the last twenty years in the Pocono Mountain School District in Pennsylvania. He took over teaching CS when the previous teacher retired. At the time, the school offered two courses: “Intro to Programming” and “AP Computer Science”. He took classes at the local community college to learn C++ and Java and also enrolled in summer courses to learn how to teach CS. At that point, he added a third course, “Advanced Java” and rewrote the curriculum to make CS more interesting for the students.
In 2008, a life-changing event occurred: Robert was invited to participate in the inaugural Tapestry workshop offered by Jim and Joanne Cohoon, married professors at the University of Virginia, with funding primarily from the National Science Foundation. The aim of the Tapestry workshop was to promote female inclusion in CS. Thirty high school educators met for three days to learn, share, and discuss techniques for effectively teaching CS and specifically for getting more female students involved in CS.
After attending this initial workshop, Robert realized how poor a job he had been doing at promoting gender equity in his CS classrooms. At the original workshop, he had met other high school teachers and together they developed strategies for attracting more female students to CS classes. The following year, Robert was invited back to the 2nd Tapestry workshop to present a proven strategy of using cooperative logic groups to get students to succeed in high school CS courses.
He explained to his fellow teachers that cooperative logic groups can be used in the classroom to develop problem solving skills, logical thinking, communication skills, and social skills, all which are necessary to succeed in CS. By dividing a class into groups of three or four students, these logic groups work together daily to solve an interesting problem and logic and reasoning should be the main tools necessary to find the solution. For example: A snail is at the bottom of a thirty foot deep well. The snail begins climbing the wall of the well. Each hour the snail can climb up three feet. The snail gets so tired from the effort that at the end of the hour the snail slips down two feet. How long will it take the snail to get out of the well? (The answer is not thirty hours.)
Logic problems have been around for centuries and most people enjoy the challenge of solving a thought-provoking problem. A majority of CS class is spent writing and testing code on a computer. This leads to the misconception that programming is a solitary pursuit. Nothing could be further from the truth. Intricate programs are built by teams of people who are constantly meeting, discussing, and formulating algorithms to write quality code. Cooperative logic groups lay the foundation for programmers to collaborate to attain a common goal. Communication amongst group members is a must. Ideas must be shared between the students. It can be as simple as one student determining a solution and explaining their solution to the other team members which lays the groundwork for students checking their work and making sure their solution is valid. Students with weak problem-solving skills learn from group members with better skills. Being involved with students who draw pictures, find patterns, and formulate algorithms helps the weaker students to develop these essential skills. Once students possess problem solving skills they can succeed at programming.
Getting several minutes away from the computer screen and talking to others can be just what some individuals need during a programming class. Students get frustrated when a program is not working. A short break from the frustration can lower stress levels. Over time, students working in cooperative groups learn that discussing problems with other students can lead to different insights that were hard to see by themselves. Instead of students staring at their screens without talking, the room becomes a classroom of learners interacting with each other. Students in cooperative logic groups learn without realizing they are learning. Cooperative logic groups are enjoyable for students and teach skills that make people successful.
At the end of the 2009 workshop, Tapestry attendees were required to submit written evaluations of all of the presenters; Robert’s presentation earned the highest positive rating. Since then, the Tapestry workshops have successfully expanded to sites all over the country and Robert has been invited to present at all 21 Tapestry workshops.
In the past 8 years Robert transformed his teaching style, and his classrooms too, in Pennsylvania and beyond. His inclusion of cooperative logic groups to make high school students succeed in CS has been very popular with high school teachers who attend the workshops. For Robert, it has been very satisfying having a positive impact on hundreds of CS teachers. These teachers have seen the benefits of cooperative logic groups and tailored many of his activities to work well in their classrooms.
Before Tapestry, he was a successful high school teacher who directly impacted the lives of approximately 150 students a year. He still has that positive impact with his local students each school year, but now his impact has been amplified. Through his methods, Robert now influences hundreds of teachers across the country to become better CS teachers, and by default, he is helping many new high school students enjoy learning CS.
Back in the Pocono Mountain School District, Robert’s CS classes are in high demand and he currently teaches four sections of “Intro to Programming”, 2 sections of “Advanced Programming”, and 1 section of “AP Computer Science”. His CS classes used to be 5% female with his AP class typically 100% male. Now his Intro sections are 30% female. Seven students out of his thirty AP CS students are female.
Robert teaches in a lower socio-economic school district. Before he became the CS teacher no student had ever earned a passing score on the AP Computer Science exam in his school district. That status has since radically change in the last three years with 59 students earning passing scores on the AP CS exam. Robert’s students have had a 90% pass rate on the exam. The next highest pass rate at his school for any AP exam is less than 60%. More than half of his AP CS students go on to study CS at colleges and universities. He will continue to be an advocate for K – 12 CS education and continue his work with Tapestry. These workshops are transitioning to being an online active website, and Robert is one of several members who are on the board of this transitioning project. He will continue making the push for CS education and gender equity.