Computer Classes Help SMHS Crack the Code

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As technology continues to advance, the world is becoming an increasingly automated place. Demand for the knowledge of computer science, correspondingly, is at an all-time high. This reality is why the San Marino Unified School District recently introduced several new coding and programming classes at the high school this fall, offerings that quickly filled to the brim with interested students.
Teaching these popular courses is first-year instructor Daniel Lee, a Southern California native who understands the long-term value associated with them.
“Computer science is becoming much more relevant in every area of study,” said Lee, who previously has taught at schools in Inglewood, South Gate and Pasadena. “I saw some kind of a projection saying that the demand is going to be going up, and also the amount of money that graduates can earn will go up. So that’s one motivator the students should have and one reason why I should be here teaching … to give them that opportunity to have an interest, decide to study computer science in college and then go on to have a career in the area.”
The decision to establish a more extensive computer science program originated with Dr. Alex Cherniss, SMUSD’s superintendent, who along with the Academics Advisory Committee had been pushing for an augmentation of the existing curriculum.
“I see that we have industries like engineering that are just begging to have graduates come out to hire,” Cherniss said recently. “We’re not sending enough qualified applicants from our schools. I see that as a need and want to expand on it.”
Lee hopes to play a vital role in that expansion. Born and raised in North Hollywood, he attended college at UC Riverside, where he was inspired to study computer science because of the dot-com boom unfolding around him during the late 1990s. A subsequent surfing trip to Peru turned into a four-year stay, during which he met his wife, but the two of them returned to the United States to raise their family. Lee did not know much about San Marino until his sister, a teacher at South Pasadena High School, referred the city to him during a job search. Both SMHS and another school closer to his home offered Lee positions, but he eventually decided to come here.
“The three things that I wanted were to work at a school district because I was working at a charter school, to teach computer science because I was teaching math, and then also to be able to focus on curriculum and not focus on classroom management,” Lee said. “At a lot of schools, you have to focus so much of your energy on classroom management that curriculum is kind of secondary on your list of priorities. Here, it’s like every single goal post was hit.”
SMHS launched an introductory coding class last year, and now has added another introductory coding class and a programming class to its curriculum. The coding classes are geared toward students with little to no experience in the field, while the programming class is designed as a pathway to an advanced-placement course that is to be added next year.
Each elective class was initially supposed to be capped at 26 students, but interest skyrocketed once the offerings were announced. Lee now has several students who are taking his courses without a grade as “teacher assistants,” something he says they are more than willing to do if it means an opportunity to learn prominent computer programs such as Python and CodeHS — the latter an online learning platform developed by a pair of Stanford University graduates in 2012.
“There are just so many talented students here, and so to not have a computer science curriculum is just kind of doing the community a disservice,” Lee said.
Lee delivers his curriculum using a version of the flipped classroom model, which is an instructional strategy that reverses the traditional educational arrangement by delivering content — often online — outside of the classroom and moves “homework” into the classroom. Lee’s variation calls for students to watch in-class videos and then complete projects in the classroom. He tries to avoid giving students work outside of the classroom.
“I feel like the kids are so stressed in the other classes, and on top of that they have their tutor activity,” he said. “What I was told was that this class should be fun. So I’m trying to make it as low-stress as possible and as fun as possible while, at the same time, giving them something that they can really bite into.”
Since Lee’s students entered his classes with different degrees of computer science knowledge, he prefers to evaluate by setting weekly milestones and conducting labs rather than giving objective tests. For example, if more than 70% of students have grasped a certain concept, the remaining 30% will be tasked with tackling it by a specific date.
“It’s not as stressful or hard as I thought it was going to be, because I’ve never done anything like this before,” said senior Jessica Cameron, a member of the SMHS robotics team who is interested in aerospace engineering. “Everyone is kind of entering on different levels, so the way he has designed the curriculum has really been beneficial to everyone no matter what level you’re in. You can kind of go at your own speed.”
One of the first assignments of the year consisted of making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. The purpose of this culinary task was to demonstrate the specificity required to carry out successful coding. After all, a classic PB and J is nothing without bread, peanut butter, jelly and a spreading knife. What’s more, these materials are only available in a cupboard or refrigerator that one must locate.
Senior Arthur Young appreciates the way Lee has organized the class, calling it “very clear, very procedural” and “well-directed.” Young hopes to study mechanical engineering in college, and his top choice is England’s University of Cambridge.
“I know that in this day and age, engineering and hardware and software go hand in hand,” said Young. “I thought it would be really important to at least have a good grasp on a powerful language like Python before I go to university, so I could be a little step ahead of the competition.”
Lee will also be overseeing a coding club at Carver Elementary School. Students who attend this hour-long after-school program will work primarily with software called Scratch, a programming language that emphasizes game creation. Scratch uses blocks that connect together as a way to simplify the process. This club is scheduled to begin on Monday, Sept. 14.
“It’s an easy way to teach children the sequential nature of programming,” said Lee.
Working with younger students is not a novel experience for Lee, who has two daughters under the age of 3. The former surfer doesn’t get to catch many waves anymore with dad-duties afoot, but the self-proclaimed family man still enjoys camping, hiking and traveling when he has free time. Lee points out that the teenagers he teaches at San Marino and those at other schools have more leisure time than he does, and how they spend these hours is crucial to the future of our country, he believes.
“I feel that the U.S. is now at a place where we’re up to the challenge, and we have a population that has the free time to be creative,” said Lee. “Giving them the programming skills at the high school and then the university level will allow them to use that creativity in ways that will change the world that we live in.”

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