‘The future is looking bright’

Neighbors: Profiles of our community

Ever wonder how a data breach happens, why your login password was deemed “weak” — or why we can shop and bank online, but not vote?

Loren Ayresman’s students can explain it to you.

Ayresman teaches math at King Kekaulike High School, but that’s only one of the many hats he wears. He’s also an assistant football coach, assistant track coach and, as of 2017, a computer science teacher. That spring, a group of sophomore math students approached Ayresman with a special request: Could he add computer science to his teaching repertoire?

“They asked me if I knew of any courses that offered Advanced Placement (AP) credit and focused on computer science,” he recalled. Ayresman told them about a newly piloted course called AP Computer Science Principles that was earning rave reviews. “The students really liked the idea of learning about their digital life,” he said. Ayresman proposed the new class to King Kekaulike High School Principal Mark Elliott, who wholeheartedly supported it.

In August of 2017, after a whirlwind of preparations — which included sending Ayresman to Texas for training — AP Computer Science Principles made its debut at King Kekaulike with 14 juniors on the roster. And it’s safe to say it was an instant hit. On par with a college-level introductory computing course, the yearlong class gives students an opportunity to learn 21st-century-and-beyond skills as they unravel the intricacies of their digital lives. “It opened up a new world for them,” Ayresman said. “Computer science is a class where any student who uses a smartphone can excel.”

Realizing the class would appeal to a more diverse group of students, he enlisted King Kekaulike special education teacher Dodi Pritchett to help spread the word. Pritchett says she immediately homed in on the far-reaching potential of the then-fledgling course. For one thing, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates there will be 1.4 million computer science-related jobs up for grabs by 2020 — and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to fill them. “Once I discovered how many lucrative computer science job opportunities were going unfilled in the U.S. and how females are grossly underrepresented in these fields, I had to do something about it,” she said.

So, when Ayresman asked Pritchett if she would be willing to co-teach the class, she agreed without hesitation. “Together, we developed the idea for a computer science program that is rich with diversity and designed to allow all of our students to experience success, not just one demographic,” she said. “For the 2019-20 school year, you can expect to see Loren and I in full force, trying to ignite a passion for computer science within our students and create for them an environment that affords a glimpse of what their future holds, no matter which career path they choose.”

To say it’s a popular class would be an understatement. This coming school year, 72 juniors will take AP Computer Science Principles, which now has three sections to meet the demand (last year, the school added another class, AP Computer Science A, for seniors who completed the course their junior year) and Ayresman says there’s a waitlist.

It’s easy to see why. Gone are the days of touch-typing drills or driving a team of pixelated oxen along the Oregon Trail in the high school computer lab. Among other things, these students learn the nuts and bolts of computer systems, the creative aspects of programming, how the internet works, and how to develop computational artifacts like videos, podcasts and snazzy infographics.

The hands-on curriculum also covers a range of more-important-than-ever topics including cybersecurity, encryption and data permanence (e.g., how an old social media post can come back to haunt you). “My students never ask: ‘When will we ever use this?’ “ Ayresman said. “Because they already are.”

And, they’re developing and honing skills that stretch far beyond the computer screen: The multidisciplinary, project-based course also emphasizes critical thinking, creativity, communication and collaboration. In the classroom, students work together to solve problems; they also discuss and write about the significance of those problems and how they impact the world around them.

“It is really neat when a student has a different way of solving a problem, then shares that idea with the rest of the class,” Ayresman said. “As the class watches, you can almost see the lightbulbs turning on over their heads. I have heard my students say, ‘I’ve never thought about that before’ or ‘that is a neat way of doing it.’ “

Ayresman and Pritchett hope to see the computer science program continue to grow by leaps and bounds. Last year, they applied for a state Department of Education School Design Innovation Grant and received nearly $30,000 in funds to modernize the school’s computer science classroom. “The future is looking bright,” Ayresman said.

Pritchett says there are more good things on the horizon. “Stay tuned for future developments at King Kekaulike High School involving partnerships with local industry leaders, Girls Who Code after-school clubs and community outreach events,” says said. “Contact us if you are involved with local computer science industry opportunities and would like to contribute to our program or collaborate with us on future innovations.”

* Sarah Ruppenthal is a Maui-based writer. Do you have an interesting neighbor? Tell us about them at missruppenthal@gmail.com. Neighbors and “The State of Aloha,” written by Ben Lowenthal, alternate Fridays.