Throughout the 2019–2020 school year, our We Are DOE series will highlight some of the everyday heroes of NYC’s public schools. Featuring a cross-section of the DOE’s 140,000+ employees across the five boroughs, We Are DOE showcases some of the many unsung heroes who help keep the largest school system in the country running daily.
Today, please welcome M.S. 217 computer science teacher, Ross Berman.
“That went even better than I expected! Two students on opposite sides of the room built their designs around outer space, so they found out they have that in common and spent the rest of the period talking about space. So that’s a success, right? That’s an amazing experience. And hopefully based just on that it created a relationship that could last for a long time. I saw a lot of that kind of magic this morning.”
So said computer science teacher, Ross Berman, after his lesson captivated 30 early-rising seventh graders at M.S. 217, Robert A. Van Wyck in Jamaica, Queens from 7:30 to 9:00 on an unseasonably warm morning in October. Their assignment was to use an MIT-designed computer programming language called Scratch to animate their names on laptops in ways that would communicate what each child felt was important about their identity. The students then paired off to discuss how they interpreted what their partners’ work said about them. Ross, who grew up on Long Island and earned a bachelor’s degree in education at Hofstra University, had been a math teacher at M.S. 217 for seven years when he heard about NYC’s Computer Science for All initiative.
“I didn’t really have a background in computer science, but I loved working with the technology we had in our school like Google Apps, Kahoot! and Quizizz,” says Ross. “So I jumped at the chance when CS for All came around. And after one professional development session, I fell in love with it right away. It was the best PD (professional development) I’d ever taken.”
Under Ross’s leadership, M.S. 217 launched a course last year called Intro to Physical Computing for seventh graders, and this year added two new classes—Creative Computing and Creative Web—for sixth, seventh, and eighth graders. Nearly 700 of the school’s 1,760 students will take computer science this year.
The experience at M.S. 217 reflects citywide trends. As of the 2018–19 school year, 160,000 students received computer science education—a 72 percent increase since the 2016–17 school year. And over 5,000 students took an AP Computer Science exam in 2018, more than a 400 percent increase from 2017! Through Computer Science for All, every NYC public school will offer CS science education by 2025. The aim isn’t to produce a generation of coding geeks (not that there’s anything wrong with that); the real aim is to prepare students to thrive in a future adults cannot even imagine.
As Ross explains it, computer science adds rigor to the curriculum in ways that excite students while fostering abilities they can apply in other courses as well. He says: “We are all about developing 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Computer science is a medium where you can build all of those because students continually need to figure out what to do when something doesn’t go right. It’s solving one problem after another and working with your classmates to do that.”
Ross has been gratified to see the appetite for computer science across the spectrum of his highly diverse school, notwithstanding the early 7:30 start for some CS classes. Even though the technology sector in today’s economy is disproportionately male, upper income, and white, that will eventually change with more computer science classrooms like M.S. 217’s across New York City. Indeed, in NYC a higher percentage of female, black, and Latino students took an AP Computer Science exam in 2018 than students nationwide.
“We are all about developing 21st century skills: communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking. Computer science is a medium where you can build all of those because students continually need to figure out what to do when something doesn’t go right. It’s solving one problem after another and working with your classmates to do that.”
– Ross Berman, CS Teacher, M.S. 217 in Queens
In Ross’ vision, CS will continue to blossom throughout his school. He says: “We did our first hackathon here last year and also work with New York University, which does a design hackathon, so we are planning to expand on both of those. And I would love to do more workshops for parents where they come in and see their children’s work—and maybe learn some coding themselves. We have a supportive administration and great PD with CS for All. So you know, let’s just keep going and expand it and see what happens. Because it’s all been great so far.”