Adding Code to High School STEM Classes

Sep 23, 2019
Adding Code to High School STEM Classes

By Joshua Baxt, Computer Science and Engineering Department writer

Computing is everywhere – phones, cars, even refrigerators. But it’s not always in high school classrooms. Computer science is often taught as an isolated discipline and isn’t integrated into other science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) courses, reducing the number of students who learn about coding.

Bootstrap seeks to change that. Based at Brown University, the nationwide program gives teachers better tools to integrate computing into their classrooms. The Computer Science and Engineering (CSE) Department at UC San Diego’s Jacobs School of Engineering has been part of the program for nearly a decade. In early August, CSE assistant teaching professor Joseph Politz led a group of San Diego Unified School District math and science teachers through a three-day seminar.

“We want students to use programming as a tool because modern mathematicians, statisticians and physicists use programming as a tool,” says Politz. “A lot of what we’re trying to do with the teachers is show them how programming ideas align with subject content.”

Tear Down the Walls

Nobody designed the education system to keep computing separate from physics, math and other disciplines. But too often, teachers lack the coding experience – and time – to build programming into their lesson plans. That’s where Bootstrap steps in.

The program started with algebra but branched out over time. This year’s San Diego workshop focused mostly on statistics and data science.

In the workshop, the teachers designed assignments to engage their students. In data science, students query a dataset, asking questions like: Which cereal is healthiest? Which is the best baseball team? In physics, they simulate brakes on a self-driving car, the thrust and falling forces on a lunar lander or a bouncing ball. In algebra, they bring in the distance formula to detect collisions in a video game or use linear and exponential functions to model different rocket speeds.

 “What we do is develop curricular modules, assignments, tools for teachers to use in existing core courses in middle and high school,” says Politz. “The idea is to reach more students and show them how computers relate to these disciplines.”

The Experience

The workshop focuses on giving teachers actual experience with programming and showing how those tools can fit in with their regular curriculum.

“Physics teachers do lots of work that’s really concrete: experiments, math, drawing pictures, deriving data from a table,” says Politz. “Giving them the time and the space to talk about writing a program or building a simulation using a program could be an additional tool.”

Teachers have embraced Bootstrap because it gives them another opportunity to engage their students, many of whom had never coded before.

“My major take-away from teaching bootstrap is that it is completely possible for all students to code,” says Renee Hill, who teaches 9th grade at Morse High School. “My students were a lot stronger than I thought they were. My special ed students seemed to love it the most.”


Because it’s included in required courses, rather than electives, Bootstrap reaches many students who would never dream of taking a computer science course.

In the bigger picture it also helps kids learn. One study found Bootstrap improved students’ algebra skills. Another paper showed more generalized math benefits. Add on the increased student engagement, and it’s a winning formula. San Diego Unified has seen these benefits and wants to take the program even farther.

“We are partnering with the district to make this a more formalized part of the curriculum in math and science classes,” says Politz. “We want to make integrated computing an option that teachers in the district are comfortable reaching for.”