Dear Analyst #93: How to bring data literacy to schools and teaching Python with Sean Tibor and Kelly Schuster-Paredes

This episode is quite different from other episodes for a few reasons. One, it’s the first time I’ve had two guests on the show at the same time. Second, it’s the first time I’ve had educators on the show. Third, the guests have a podcast about Python so they taught me a thing or two about interviewing guests on a show :). Kelly Schuster-Paredes starting teaching Python in middle school about four years ago. Sean Tibor also taught Python in middle school but transitioned to a cloud engineering role earlier this year. We chat about teaching data literacy in middle schools, developing empathy, the AP Computer Science exam, and the Teaching Python podcast.

Data literacy and Python for middle school students

Hearing the words “Python,” “data literacy,” and “middle school” in the same sentence is foreign to me. When I was in middle school in the late 90s, the only exposure we had to computers was the one computer in every classroom we sometimes got to play computer games on. In high school, there was only one computer science class and the only language you could learn was C++.

This might just be my “get off my front lawn” moment. The classroom has obviously changed a lot since the late 90s, and Kelly and Sean are at the forefront of this change.

They talked about the rigid rules you typically come across when it comes to learning math and science. You might use a graphing calculator in a math class, but then use a different set of math “tools” in science class. At the end of the day, it’s all just data and how you store and manipulate it to get the results you need. Instead of using a calculator in physics, perhaps you could write a simple program to solve the problem.

Kelly and Sean eventually developed a curriculum centered around Python. They don’t teach Python to their students the way you might normally learn computer science at university. At university and in bootcamps, you’re usually given the practical knowledge and skills to be proficient in solving problems. In middle school, students learn with their “entire being” while adults learn the concrete things to get the job done. It’s all about making a connection with the students, according to Kelly and Sean

How does data fit into math and science classes?

Both science and math classes involve collecting and analyzing a lot of data. But how is that data stored and interpreted? Kelly and Sean talk about how the only class that involves storing data in tables is in science class. In math and science classes, you might draw graphs on paper or on a graphing calculator. But how do you go from that paradigm of teaching to millions of rows of data stored in a database? In math class, it’s a bit tougher to integrate data subjects because the goal of the class is to eventually be good at calculus.

Teaching skills that are used in the workplace

One of my favorite Freakonomics episodes is #391 where Stephen Dubner talks to various experts and academics about the math curriculum taught at middle and high schools. The theme of the episode is that teachers are still teaching math like we are preparing students for going to the moon. In reality, students just need to learn how to use Excel, PowerPoint, and Google Sheets since these are the tools they would use every day in the workplace.

I used to lean more heavily on the side of teaching the practical skills in middle and high schools. From talking with Kelly and Sean, I’ve started shifting my position to somewhere in the middle. Sean talks about how you still need to have English, Art, and Social Studies to create a balanced student. Adults, on the other hand, are more pragmatic (hence the rise of these data science bootcamps).

New methods and strategies for teaching math in the 21st century

Kelly brought up a really neat website that teaches math and data science in a unique way. Stanford’s Graduate School of Education has created YouCubed, a collection of activities and tasks to help K-12 students learn data fundamentals. One Kindergarten exercise Kelly talked about is this Popular Fruits exercise showing fruits in different sized circles. This exercise aims to show the power of data visualization:

Source: Youcubed

I love how one of the questions in this exercise is “what do you wonder?” How often are we asked that anymore during your Zoom calls?

Coincidentally, Jo Boaler, one of the creators of YouCubed, is mentioned in the Freakonomics episode on changing the math curriculum in schools. She was part of the Math Wars in the early 2000s. This was a debate between reformists and traditionalists on how math should be taught in schools.

Source: Stanford Graduate School of Education

So, teaching is always very hard to change because people learn it from their own school days, and then they want to become the maths teacher they had. Well, maths teachers do anyway. And when people have tried to change, they’ve really received aggressive pushback, which has caused some of them to sort of withdraw and go back into teaching the way that they were.

Jo Boaler

Boaler goes on in the episode to discuss why the current “traditionalist” curriculum hasn’t caught up with the data and computing skills students need to learn to succeed:

When we look at the world out there and the jobs students are going to have, many students will be working with big data sets. So, we haven’t adapted to help students in the most important job many people will do, which is to work with data sets in different ways. So, statistics is really important, as a course, but is under-played. This is a fifth of the curriculum in England and has been for decades. But here in the U.S., it’s sort of a poor cousin to calculus.

Jo Boaler

The College Board and the AP Computer Science exam

We chatted a bit about the AP CS exam and how it’s not supposed to focus on a specific language, but rather the discipline of computer science. Today, the AP CS exam does require the knowledge of Java. When I took it, it was C++. Sean talked about how the discipline of computer science is very different from being able to solve problems with code or technology. If the goal is to test this specific skill, you would need open-ended questions on the exam and that would be too difficult to grade.

Students ask Sean and Kelly about how they can look more attractive to colleges and universities, and Sean and Kelly have to explain to students that they are more than just a AP or SAT score. Standardized tests are starting to change but Sean has some suggestions on how students can showcase their talents beyond these scores. Building an online portfolio where you analyze data and present your insights shows the public what you are capable of. Since more than 80% of 4-year universities have dropped the SAT requirement, students should develop new ways to stand out beyond scores that don’t completely show what their potential could be.

Teaching Python on teaching Python

As I mentioned earlier, Kelly and Sean have a podcast called Teaching Python all about…teaching Python. Here’s a quick blurb about the podcast from their website:

A podcast by Kelly Paredes and Sean Tibor about their adventures teaching middle school computer science, problem-solving, handling failure, frustration, and victory through the lens of the Python programming language.

I asked why Python became the programming language of choice, and Sean described Python as being the “2nd best option” behind spreadsheets for data processing. Kelly and Sean started the podcast about 3 years ago, and their favorite episode is the first episode they ever recorded. Aptly named Hello World.

Source: Hackernoon

There are many ways to learn Python, and what makes their podcast different is that they are teaching teachers how to teach Python. Some other episodes they mentioned that are worth listening to:

When I asked what their goals are with the podcast, Kelly summed it up very nicely:

I just want to meet amazing people around the world

Other Podcasts & Blog Posts

In the 2nd half of the episode, I talk about some episodes and blogs from other people I found interesting: