Spotlight on Technology: An Interview with Katie O'Shaughnessey

Katie O'Shaughnessey joined RCDS in 2016 as chair of the Computer Science Department. She and Andrew Gillies, director of the RCDS IT Department, are co-chairs of the Technology Task Force that grew out of the Strategic Plan. We recently sat down with Ms. O'Shaughnessey to discuss the goals for computer science and technology at RCDS.

What do you think are the most valuable skills/lessons for RCDS students to learn about technology and computer science?

In computer science, the tools we use are constantly changing and improving. Because of this, the actual programming language that students learn in a computer science course is secondary to the principles of computer science that they learn. Fundamentally, computer science is about logic, problem solving, and creativity. To that end, learning to break down a problem and think through an algorithm to solve the problem is by far the strongest emphasis in my teaching, and through this process students learn a tolerance for facing difficult problems, an appreciation for making mistakes, and the creativity that it takes to be a strong problem solver. In addition, learning to work with others and communicate about highly technical items is important in most fields, including computer science. Communication and collaboration, therefore, are also highly emphasized in our department.

Why would you recommend that all RCDS students take a course in computer science?

As technology becomes more and more ubiquitous, computer science impacts every sector in our world. From machine learning algorithms with facial recognition in our social media, to navigation systems in our cars, to heating systems in our homes, to special effects in our movies, the impact of technology is everywhere. Regardless of the ambitions of our students, as well rounded citizens in a digitally connected world, all of them need to understand the ways in which technology impacts their society, economy, and culture. Students need to know the risks and potential rewards of adopting technology applications, and they need to be empowered to be creators of technology.

One of my favorite quotes on this topic is below:

What you learn in computer science is applicable to the arts, social sciences, law, and the humanities. Computer science doesn't have an exclusive domain. It gives tools and techniques that can be brought to every field. -David J. Malan, Gordon McKay Professor of Computer Science at Harvard University.

What is different about technology education today than, say, a decade or two ago?

Accessibility. Many students now carry more powerful technology in their pocket than existed two decades ago in desktop computers. Because of this, they can find the answers to questions and explore complex simulations without the aid of a library or pencil and paper. They can complete far more complex tasks with these tools than I could when I attended high school, and their curiosity and tenacity are the limiters of their innovation.

The tools are also evolving at lightning speed, so it is highly likely that students will be ahead of their parents and teachers in knowing and adopting the hottest new technology. Technology educators need to be comfortable with losing the title of "expert" and rapidly evolve to the title of "curator" and "guide." I encourage my students to surpass my knowledge as often as they possibly can, and enjoy learning alongside them and directing them to the incredible and numerous high quality resources for learning found on the Internet. This model for education was simply not possible two decades ago. When I graduated from college, very few people knew what the Internet was, and even fewer expected it to have any effect on the economy, much less education. It is now an inherent part of all sectors and the ways that they do their work, and we must embrace it in our classrooms, as well.

How similar is learning code to studying a foreign language?

Because coding asks us to communicate with a machine, and not a person, many computer scientists, including myself, believe that learning a coding language is quite a bit different than learning a foreign language. It is more often likened to learning mathematics, which also has a highly algorithmic and symbolic nature, and requires the learning of a highly organized way of problem solving. I can name one similarity, which is that just like Latin is the foundation of our always-evolving language, computer science is the foundation of our always-evolving technological landscape. Tomorrow's leaders should have that foundation.

What are some of the initiatives in the works for expanding technology education at RCDS?

Our Technology Committee has been surveying teachers in all three divisions to gain a better understanding of what is happening in our classrooms. Simultaneously, we have agreed upon the adoption of the ISTE (International Society for Technology in Education) Standards for Students as the set of goals that we would like every to student to reach before graduation. We will soon examine the data we have gathered and compare it to the standards in an effort to identify gaps and inconsistencies, at which point we will brainstorm ways to bridge those gaps in our curriculum.

What advice about technology would you give to a parent of a student entering the Lower School?

Rather than fearing technology and our children's comfort with it, I encourage parents to embrace the technology their children love and learn it along with their children, and feel empowered to set boundaries around technology, just like they do in every other area of their child's life. Parents should have a full picture of what their children are being exposed to online and the content of the games they are playing. I encourage parents to have ongoing conversations about what their children are doing in their digital life, and make digital citizenship part of their regular conversation. Included within these conversations should be ongoing discussions about health and well being, privacy, safety, ethics and legal behavior. With age appropriate boundaries set in place, children should be given access to more of the digital world only when they are ready for it, and parents should feel empowered to install apps like MamaBear or Qustodio even on devices of children as old as seniors in high school as a way of helping them learn how to interact safely with the digital world.

What will computer science/tech education look like 20 years from now?

I can only imagine that we will be using augmented reality and not touching screens to navigate by then, and our schools and homes will be even more smart than they are today. Students will be able to visit places all over the world virtually and interact with 3D versions of people and things projected into a room that are not bounded by screens like they are with FaceTime. If quantum computing comes to fruition, students could have access to computers that can map the human genome in seconds, and solve some of our greatest problems with machine learning, right in their high school classrooms. Beyond that, I have no idea where the amazing digital world will bring us. What I expect will continue to be true, though, will be that at its heart, education will still be about raising inquisitive, creative, and empowered young people in the world who are able to think critically, express themselves creatively, and work for the betterment of their world.

How do we differentiate between computer science, technology, and STEAM?

Because one of our aims with STEAM is to explore where the disciplines work together, it does become harder to differentiate computer science, STEAM, and technology. Computer science is the study of how to use computers to solve problems and automate solutions that scale. Technology encompasses a full range of equipment that we use, including computers, phones, copiers, SmartBoards, televisions, cars, and a broad range of equipment. The Technology Committee works to explore the skills that all teachers and students should have before graduating. The Computer Science Department seeks to expose students to the "intellectual enterprises and art of programming" computers. STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Mathematics) explores the intersection of these disciplines, rather than studying them separately. Much of what happens in computer science, therefore, is quite naturally STEAM. We could use computer science to explore the human genome in science, generate a beautiful artistic design, or solve a highly complex math problem that involves large amounts of data. In short, they are all tied in together, yet do have some discrete spaces that they work in.

What is your vision/dream for technology/comp sci at RCDS?

I dream that every student will one day leave RCDS able to understand the power and limitations of the computer that they use every day. I hope that each child we teach will be empowered to unleash his or her creativity and problem solving through developing at least one original application or physical object through design and code. I hope that all students feel supported and empowered to adopt emerging technologies quickly and read or watch content that helps them to learn what they need to know in order to realize their visions and dreams.