Classroom Coding

STEM education efforts in Tennessee gather momentum

By Andy Meek

A movement is afoot to ensure the classroom of the future adds new science and technology-based pillars – like writing code – to traditional standbys like reading, writing and arithmetic.

Kriangsiri “Top” Malasri of the University of Memphis computer science department demonstrates how to code Javascript programs for his Lego robot. Malasri's Hour of Code presentation was part of Computer Science Education Week. 

(Daily News/Andrew J. Breig)

That movement manifests itself in things like Hour of Code, a national movement that in recent days gave students in thousands of sessions around the country – including in Memphis – hands-on introductions to computer programming.

Hour of Code, which was promoted by big names like President Barack Obama and Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, coincided with the end of Computer Science Education Week, with the Memphis event happening Dec. 13 at the University of Memphis. Beyond that single event, momentum is building locally and across Tennessee toward giving students more of a foundation in the realities and opportunity associated with computer coding.

The recent Hour of Code gathering held as part of an open house at the University of Memphis computer science department is one of the higher-profile examples of such efforts. It was part of a daylong open house that included video game design and Lego robotics workshops, as well as interactive demonstrations of current research projects by the university’s computer science students and faculty.

The Hour of Code portion of the day introduced basic programming to attendees given by the university’s student chapter of the Association for Computing Machinery. The Tennessee Code Academy, Launch Tennessee and the Tennessee STEM Innovation Network encouraged and organized events like the one in Memphis throughout the state.

“The purpose of the open house event was to get local middle- and high-school students and teachers excited about computer science,” said Kriangsiri “Top” Malasri, an instructor and advising coordinator in the university’s computer science department.

Dr. Stephanie Ivey, an associate professor in the civil engineering department at the university, said the West Tennessee STEM Hub is a collaborative with the mission of putting more resources in classrooms so that the interest students show in something like Hour of Code is able to be sustained. The group serves a few dozen school districts in 20 counties and was funded through the Tennessee Department of Education and the Battelle Memorial Institute to promote and expand the teaching of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) in K-12 public schools in Tennessee.

Recognition of the importance of such work continues to build. Earlier this fall, the Shelby County Schools Virtual STEM Academy at East High School was awarded a $1.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation.

“The way the state network works is there are STEM hubs and schools that were funded through this grant process all across the state, so there’s a network of hubs and schools throughout Tennessee,” Ivey said. “And we’re the only one in West Tennessee.”

“The goal of the hub is really to be a catalyst for collaboration and transformation of STEM education.” 

–Dr. Stephanie Ivey
University of Memphis

The West Tennessee hub is focusing on teacher preparation so it can make a bigger impact instead of focusing, for example, on students at a particular school or even in a particular school district.

“So, we have a STEM master teacher program that we piloted last summer, and we’ll be going into our second running of that this summer where we’re actually going to be expanding across West Tennessee to make sure we get teachers from as many districts as we can involved,” Ivey said. “What we’re trying to do is within West Tennessee transform the way STEM education takes place and make sure we have all the partners involved – not only in curriculum development but in informing the student and teacher preparation process.

“West Tennessee is so diverse, and we have a lot of very different needs in the various districts. So you may have a rural community that’s under-resourced from the standpoint of – they just can’t provide a physics teacher at every high school, because they just don’t have that available. That’s why the hub also is developing some STEM-integrated and STEM content online modules that can be used in classrooms. Because the goal of the hub is really to be a catalyst for collaboration and transformation of STEM education.”