What’s it take to teach technological fluency to digital natives?

In Pittsburgh and across the world, Mark Stehlik is sharing a lifetime of computer science teaching experience with a new generation

For nearly 30 years, Mark Stehlik has been a computer science (CS) professor at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU); he was also Assistant Dean for Undergraduate Education for over 20 years, and is now Assistant Dean for Outreach. In 1984, when personal computers were a fresh innovation, he helped train the first cohort of Advanced Placement (AP) Computer Science teachers. In the digital age of ubiquitous smartphones, Stehlik continues his central role in computer science education.

Gregarious and voluble, Stehlik’s enthusiasm for CS is quickly apparent and highly contagious. Remake Learning spoke to him about spreading the gospel of computer science.

Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live.

What does the Assistant Dean for Outreach do?

While Carnegie Mellon has had tremendous success over the last 15 years with the female demographic—we went from 10% of a class being female to now almost 50%—we have not had as much success with other populations. Part of the outreach job is trying to figure out how to get more underrepresented students into the pipeline—to make the pipeline bigger. That is very much connected to where students learn about professions. Typically, that’s in high school, and high school computer science has not been in the best shape. So we think about how Carnegie Mellon can help in this space.

What should students know by the time they graduate high school? And what can they gain from early exposure to CS, even if they don’t pursue a CS degree?

They should know how to think. A lot of computer science is about problem-solving and figuring out how to implement the solution in a constrained programming language, which is an exercise in moving between layers of abstraction. It’s also incredibly creative, because you and I can come up with different solutions. We can argue about efficiency, or elegance, or clarity, so you start looking at layers of problem-solving—not just what answer is correct, but which is better.

We also know that technology is driving forward the US economy. Whether you become a software engineer is less important than understanding the technological milieu in which we live. What does it mean that elections can be hacked? When we talk about autonomous vehicles, at some point you need to decide how it responds to an unavoidable accident: what do you prioritize, what do you evaluate first? Some developer is going to have to implement this, but some non-developer should be thinking about the ethical implications.

I would also say everybody needs to be able to write a little bit of code, because everything exists in that space now. It’s important to be technically savvy in a tech-oriented world, and this generation is going to need to understand that space incredibly well.

You’re currently working with the South Fayette school district to improve their high school CS program, and teaching an AP course there. How do you get younger students excited about computing?

One of the interesting things in South Fayette is they have a wonderful K-8 computational thinking program. But if you took the kids who came through this program—exploring with Arduinos and robots, Scratch and Snap!—and you dropped them into the current 9th grade Java class, they would look at you like you had three heads.

You want to show the breadth of computer science as being way more than programming. I can envision a curriculum that lays the foundations in the 9th year with a bunch of different electives: robotics, machine learning. But you need wonderful programs in K-8, and then you need to look at what you’re doing in the high school and make sure you’re ready to engage these kids when they get there. The Remake Learning initiative is a perfect example: you’re thinking about how you can engage people in this technology now.

Do you notice a gender gap in either enrollment or performance in the K-12 classes? If so, what are your thoughts on how to narrow it?

In my AP class, there’s definitely a skew. But I think if you show things to kids in elementary school, before they’ve really figured out what they want to be, we’ll find a lot more people attaching to computing. I don’t think use of iPhones skews male or female, so why should thinking more deeply about that technology?

And people attach to technology in different ways. Some kids like to play with robots, some don’t; some kids like to play with graphical things, some don’t. The more varied the contexts you embed the technology in, the more likely you’ll be to not see those striations. Indeed, this is why it’s a fundamental access issue—it’s keeping the keys to the kingdom locked up that I think drives some of those gaps.

You spent two and a half years working at CMU’s Qatar campus. Qatar is highly ranked in average years of schooling, life expectancy and quality of life. But it’s also a monarchy ruled by Sharia Law. With programming, people can build their idea and share it widely with nothing more than a computer, which feels very democratic. Do you think computer science has a role to play in advancing equality in the world?

Oh yes, absolutely. It goes back to what we were just talking about: when you present these tools more widely, the equity and democratization issue comes as a matter of course.

For many women in that part of the world, being exposed to higher education and computing is a fundamental alteration of the expected career path. It’s no longer that you can only stay home and be married, you now have this other opportunity. My sense is that a lot of the Qatari females will have fundamentally different conversations with their daughters than they are having right now with their mothers.

Researching your work as an educator, it’s clear you are a deeply beloved professor who inspires students and colleagues alike. You have both a scholarship and a fellowship named after you, and at least two students have even asked you to participate in their weddings. What’s been your central philosophy as an educator?

Dave Kosbie, who’s a very good friend and colleague of mine, put it more succinctly than I think I ever could. As he tells it, the three rules are:

  1. Students come first
  2. If you want people to work hard, you have to work harder
  3. Attend to the whole student, not just their mind

Photo courtesy Aileen OwensI have a couple of my own on my website, and you can pick whichever subset of those you like.

People say ‘do what you love.’ I believe I’m one of the few that gets to do that. And if you love what you do, I think you owe it to everybody you come into contact with to be enthusiastic about it, and in some sense, to be an evangelist for it indirectly. I don’t have to tell people computer science is cool—what I should be doing is showing them it’s cool by how cool I think it is.


You can see Mark Stehlik’s TEDx talk, “What is your fractal dimension?,” at Qatar’s Education City, here.

Published March 23, 2017

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