Serendipitous encounter

Graduate student opens doors for high school computer science teachers

After earning two bachelor's degrees in mathematics and computer science, Daniel Heller spent some time in the business world teaching the widely used programming language Java to employees at companies around the country.


Graduate student Daniel Heller is teaching high school teachers how to teach the Java programming language to their students. © Mark Morelli

Last fall, when he started a graduate program in computer science at Tufts, Heller was at Halligan Hall, home to the computer science department, when he happened to run into Diane Souvaine, the department chair. The two started chatting, and the chance encounter was an example of the right person being in the right place at the right time.

Souvaine had helped organize a program called Java Engagement for Teacher Training, known as JETT. The goal of the program is to train high school teachers to teach Java to their students and also to help teachers learn how to train other teachers for the same purpose. The program was started by the Association for Computer Machinery (ACM), one of the first professional computer organizations in the United States. ACM got involved in high school programs when the College Board, a nonprofit association that administers the advanced placement program, announced it would require high school Advanced Placement computer science students to learn the Java programming language instead of C++, an older programming language it had been using.

A perfect match
The announcement is resulting in a major transition: Not all teachers know Java or know how to teach it. Heller does. Souvaine signed him up on the spot. "Dan turned out to be the perfect person to run JETT at Tufts," said Souvaine.

Under Heller's leadership, Tufts joined three other schools that are running JETT workshops: Columbia University, the New Jersey Institute of Technology and Duke University. The long-term goal of the program is not just to facilitate workshops but to create a community of high school computer science teachers working alongside university faculty and students.

"While instructors in other subjects can easily walk across the hall for support and to share ideas or discuss problems with colleagues," says the JETT website, "computer science teachers are remarkably alone at the high school level. A community that brings these teachers together, forming a sustainable support system for training, curricular and other topics, is sorely needed."

As a means of fostering community, Heller helped organize an undergraduate ACM chapter last fall, and students participated in the workshop program. Ten teachers attended the two-session workshops in the spring from Massachusetts communities, including Malden, Andover and Newton. Some of the teaching material for the program came from Robert Jacobs, an assistant professor in the computer science department, who adapted material from his popular college-level course.

Java workshops
Maria Litvin, a College Board consultant and a math teacher at Phillips Andover Academy, provided background knowledge based on years of experience working on high school computer science curricula. She was instrumental in the planning stages for both workshops. She also offered hands-on programs at both workshops based on material she uses in her Java textbooks. Nancy Leland, a graduate student in computer science and a faculty member at the University of Kyrgyzstan, also served as an instructor.

Tufts' Department of Education donated the use of its computer laboratory, which allowed teachers to see Java work in both Macintosh and PC environments at the same time. Portability across platforms is one of the reasons Java is so widely used.

"Java is very much a part of modern business and the software world, so it's good for high school students to know it," said Heller, who enjoys running the program.

He also enjoys Tufts and said he is impressed with the interaction between students and professors, which he describes as "fruitful"—and where a chance encounter in a hallway can lead to happy results.