Denise Hoag is a computer science teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs where she teaches programming, app development, computer science engineering and web design.
We recently talked to Denise about her position at TJ and the growing STEM field.
AIM: What made you want to start teaching STEM?
DH: Well, I was in the corporate world. When I left I was a programmer and wanted to be a teacher. I really wanted to teach computer science because that’s what I was familiar with, but when I started at TJ they didn’t have much. So over the years we just kept adding a course one by one. Luckily I had principals and administration that really wanted to grow it, so every year when I asked to add a course they let me.
AIM: What’s the biggest challenge you’ve encountered while working with STEM?
DH: Well we do not have the capability to be a licensed computer science teacher in Iowa yet.That’s a frustrating part because everything I teach, the teacher training didn’t train me for. They trained me how to be a teacher, but not what to teach.
I also teach a wide variety of classes so I’m trying to learn each one at a level that I’m comfortable with. I think if I taught three different things it would be a lot easier than teaching seven or eight.
For example, first hour I teach java, and then I go to computer graphics the next hour. Then the next hour I’m teaching an AP class and then I’m teaching Python. The variety of what I have to know is probably the most challenging thing.
AIM: Why do you think it’s important for kids to learn STEM?
STEM touches pretty much every job that you’re in. Even if you’re not going to be a programmer, I think it’s important to understand how the programs work.
Sometimes I get kids that think they are interested in something and take the course, but then they choose something else. I’m glad because they didn’t waste that time in college, plus they got a feel and appreciation for the field. Even if they decide to go into medicine or something, everything has a program behind it, so they get a better understanding of how it all works.
AIM: How would you attempt at solving the issue of diversity in the information technology field?
DH: We started an after school program last year that goes all the way down to third grade, we’re trying to reach them at a younger age. We try to teach them that it takes a creative mind, and all different kinds of perspectives to do IT. We need all those different perspectives in the technology field so we can expand and grow.
We’re finding that they’re not afraid of the curriculum, they’re intimidated when they walk into the room and it’s all boys. We try to get them to take a class with a friend, and really try to get them involved with group work so they’re more comfortable.
AIM: What’s your biggest piece of advice for other teachers that are trying to get these programs started?
DH: Luckily, I have administration that really backs me up. As far as advice for administration goes, present them with the facts that we’re going to be short millions of jobs soon because we aren’t training our youth. Learning technology is also going to help kids with math and help them communicate better.
Lastly, I would just say that these teachers need to be prepared to teach themselves. YouTube has saved me many times because I had to learn these things myself, ask my students certain questions, and learn together.
AIM: What are some free tools that you use to help teach?
DH: We use things like Scratch, Alice, the MIT app inventor, CodeAcademy.org, Code.org, General Assembly and Dash. There’s a ton of stuff out there that is free to use.
AIM: How do you see these programs affecting the future of Council Bluffs?
DH: STEM can really open doors for a lot of people. Here we have a world ranking robotics team from the lowest socioeconomic school in the state of Iowa. It just shows you that it doesn’t matter what school you’re at, STEM can really affect the future of these kids.
I had a student who moved on and now works for Google, for example. I don’t know if students like him would have had that interest had they not had a taste of it in high school.
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