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Mudd Offers MOOC for Computer Science

Harvey Mudd College will launch a Massive Open Online Course (MOOC) program this fall that will target middle school teachers across the country, according to Elly Schofield HM ’13, the program coordinator.

Through this program, HMC hopes to encourage more people from underrepresented groups to study areas such as computer science and math by reaching out to students as young as 13. Currently STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) fields are dominated by white male students, and the HMC MOOC will target students of color and women in computer science classes.

“The kind of student population who were graduating from class in computer science are mostly exactly the people we already expect to go into computer science,” Schofield said. "The whole image of what I can and can’t be based on how I looked isn't that much cemented in [middle school students’] heads, so that’s why we were trying to reach this very young audience.”

However, the program HMC is launching this fall is somewhat different from the traditional MOOC, which targets individual students and provides certificates at the end of the curriculum. Top American schools like the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Princeton University, and Stanford University offer free courses online to the public, and the programs that have been expanding rapidly since they were founded in 2012, are now offering classes to millions of students. 

“The general idea behind the MOOC is that it’s trying to create an online course that typically is either free or very cheap, for anyone around the world to access,” Schofield said.

The HMC program is not like Coursera or edX, the two largest websites, however.

“We are not trying to reach individual students," Schofield said. "We are trying to reach out to teachers instead. We are trying to create an online course that makes it the easiest possible for a middle or high school teacher who has no computer science background to offer some computer science curriculum in their classrooms." 

“The number one goal of the MOOC is to empower teachers," said Zachary Dodds, a professor in HMC's computer science department, which hosts computer science workshops for middle school teachers each summer. "You can absolutely self-pace it, but our primary concern is students who would be getting it through local schools.” 

“We want people to think about themselves as being able to become a computer scientist if they want to," Schofield said. 

The curricula provided in this program are “MyCS” (Middle Year Computer Science) and “How Stuff Moves," a physics course. MyCS focuses on the fun and creative aspects of programming, unlike the traditional Advanced Placement computer science courses offered in high schools. 

The course will help students “get a sense of what is going on in the field without necessarily having to dig directly into the code," Schofield said. 

“Physics and computer science were the first two subjects suggested, because they are not well represented across high schools in the U.S.," Dodds said. "Not many schools have AP physics or AP computer science."

Corinne Druhan HM ’14, the project manager of the team responsible for creating the online courses, said that physics was a natural choice for the MOOC because the subject is so important to HMC's curriculum.

"The online course is also supposed to help students who are taking the course here, so it’s a course that Mudd people have said they want a lot of extra material and extra help with," she said. 

MyCS has existed for about three years as a middle to high school computer science curriculum, Schofield said. In addition, HMC has been hosting workshops for middle school and high school teachers within the Pomona School District during the summer. 

“Pomona School district has a really huge Hispanic population and that’s the audience we don’t usually get to reach in CS curriculum before they come to college,” Schofield said. 

With the launch of the MOOC this coming fall, HMC plans to help more students in the district learn computer science by working with teachers first.

According to Druhan, last fall HMC focused most of their efforts on the computer science course and they are now shifting the focus to the physics course for the spring.

The MOOC that will launch this fall will be open to all school districts and individuals, “but we are still going to partner with Pomona School District in particular and we are still going to have in-person workshops," Dodds said. "The MOOC is going to be an additional resource for them to use.”

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