by THOMAS HUSS
WESTFIELD, Ind. (Feb. 5, 2019) - It’s fifth period in a warm classroom at Westfield High School, where 19 students are typing away at their computers. A mural of tech superstars adorns the back wall, while the rest of the room is plastered with the names of graduates of the most advanced computer science class the school has to offer: AP Computer Science. Offered at high schools across the country, the class Mrs. Karen Podell has taught this class for almost seven years, and she’s still as enthusiastic as ever about it.
Mrs. Podell firmly believes that everyone will use computer science at some point in his or her life, and she’s a perfect example of this. She started her career as an administrative assistant and eventually became a secretary at a high school. After becoming a single mom, she decided to start teaching, and she taught business at Westfield for four years. One July, just two weeks before school started, she was asked to teach a web design class, and she agreed without knowing anything about web design or even having written code before.
“I pretty much learned it in about two weeks, but HTML and CSS are pretty easy to learn,” Mrs. Podell said. “And I loved teaching that class so much that the next year I said, ‘well, I think we need a real programming class, because [web design] is a formatting class.’ So I decided I would try to teach Visual Basic, and I loved that, so I added C++, and then it all spiraled, and I just kept adding classes.”
AP Computer Science was added to Mrs. Podell’s lineup in the 2012-2013 school year. It had a bit of a rocky start at first, but for the second year, she attended training sessions with the National Math and Science Initiative, which significantly boosted her passing rate. The class goes in-depth into many computer science topics such as looping, decision making, and recursion, and these skills are reinforced through projects assigned periodically. It’s taught entirely in Java, the same programming language used by professionals around the world, and the one that’s tested on the AP exam for computer science.
Students in the AP Computer Science class share an enthusiasm for coding. Theo Pinaire (12) took the class because he enjoys computer science, which he compares to solving a puzzle, or “like math but more fun,” and his favorite part of the class is the coding projects. Jacob Beene (10) likes the workload of the class, while Birch Floyd (10) just enjoys hanging out with Mrs. Podell. Alex Blansette (11), on the other hand, took the class to be with his friends, and while he admits he doesn’t always understand what’s going on, he describes the class as “actually pretty solid."
Mrs. Podell also enjoys the challenges of coding, which are critical for the class’s tests and quizzes, and ultimately the AP exam. The exam questions aren’t like the ones students learned to expect from other classes, because these force more outside-the-box thinking, but students get plenty of practice as many quiz questions are taken straight from the exam. Regardless, the class demands dedication and studying, and Mrs. Podell’s least favorite part of the class is trying to reinforce good studying skills in students who may not have experience taking such an advanced course.
“There’s more studying involved to be able to pass the AP test,” she said. “If you don’t study independently and do all the reading and really learn the concepts, you aren’t going to pass that test. The problems on the test are very difficult, [...] and the way the questions are worded is slightly different than a regular test question; you really have to think about what they’re getting at.”
Mrs. Podell believes computer science education is always beneficial to the student, and while it may be hard at first, it gets easier as you develop skills, and most importantly, it’s fun. Recently, the Westfield Washington school district announced its plans for integrating more computer science skills into K-8 education, and she’s all for it. She sees this as an opportunity for high school to start teaching even more advanced computer science classes, such as the cyber-security, tech support, and software development classes that are being added to the high school’s lineup next school year.
“That just means I’ll have to step up my game,” she said. “Students will be coming to me with more knowledge, which is a good thing, so we’re going to have to dive a lot deeper in a lot of the classes. Once we start getting those students who’ve had it since kindergarten, they’re gonna have a lot of knowledge, and we’ll be building on that knowledge, so I think it’ll be wonderful.”