Four things to know about the highly acclaimed computer science curriculum at The Altamont School

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Ryan James teaches the programming language Scratch to Iman Zuberi, Mason Coleman and Madeleine Beckwith. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Since The Altamont School’s computer science (CS) curriculum was introduced three years ago, there has been an explosion of interest and growth. Nearly a third of the school’s student body takes a CS class.

Starts in the 5th Grade

Altamont upper school Computer Systems students successfully built their first computer earlier this fall.  Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

The school’s CS curriculum is unique in that it starts in 5th grade with substantive content and builds to college-level classes in upper school.

“We focus on problem-solving skills and computation-thinking practices in every computer science class,” said Ryan James, Altamont’s CS teacher. “Teaching students how to code is not enough, as some of the technology will be obsolete before they graduate from college.”

This picture highlights a project of eighth graders Noah Warren and Bud Gidiere who are working on a wearable computer. They designed a 3D print to attach the computer, which is a Raspberry Pi, to their arm. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Students start off with block-based programming languages (Scratch and Snap!) before moving into traditional text-based ones (Python and Java).

“Research shows that students better understand what they are doing and building when it is presented to them as a block in their younger years,” said James.

Upper school curriculum

Upper school students build websites with HTML and Javascript, create databases with SQL, create their own Linux operating systems, and, in the case of an upper school Computer Systems class, actually build a desktop computer from scratch. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Upper school students build websites with HTML and Javascript, create databases with SQL, create their own Linux operating systems, and, in the case of an upper school Computer Systems class, actually build a desktop computer from scratch.

“Our goal is to help students develop the skills they need for the jobs that they will go on to create; jobs that don’t even exist yet. Our desire is to have alumni who are a step above their peers,” said James.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that computer and IT jobs will grow 13 percent in the next 10 years, faster than the average for all occupations.

Preparing students for the future

A group of Altamont students spent a week this fall in Silicon Valley touring companies and meeting with Altamont alumni working in the tech industry. One visit was with Margeuax Woods ’09, a senior accountant for Salesforce, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) software company that is growing rapidly. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Altamont is preparing its students to be ready. Along with expanded curricular offerings, the school also launched a 1-to-1 laptop program that enables teachers to deliver more personalized content to students, boosts students’ technology skills, and empowers students to do more complex, creative and collaborative work. By the 2022-23 school year, all Altamont students will be rolled into the 1-to-1 laptop program.

Faculty and student honors

James was just announced as the recipient of the Dr. Albert Lilly Memorial Educator Award for Excellence and Commitment to Alabama K-12 Computer Science by the non-profit National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). He will be presented the award at a ceremony this April.

Ryan James with NCWIT award winners Mary Allen Murray and Maya Leonard. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Several Altamont students also won NCWIT awards. Senior Amrita Lakhanpal received a NCWIT National Honorable Mention and Northern Alabama Winner Award for Aspirations in Computing. She was one of only 400 NHM recipients nationally, and one of only 3 NHM recipients in the state of Alabama.

NCWIT National Honorable Mention and Northern Alabama winner Amrita Lakhanpal. Photo courtesy of The Altamont School

Senior Mary Allen Murray received a NCWIT Northern Alabama Rising Star award and junior Maya Leonard was named NCWIT Northern Alabama Honorable Mention. Students are selected for these awards based on their aptitude and interest in IT and computing, solid leadership ability, academic history and plans for post-secondary education.

Learn More

The Altamont School is a private school serving students from 5th to 12th grades located on the crest of Red Mountain, about five minutes from downtown Birmingham.

To learn more about The Altamont School computer science curriculum and other cutting edge educational programs at school, contact Thomas Goldsmith at tgoldsmith@altamontschool.org.

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Author: Pat Byington

Longtime conservationist. Former Executive Director at the Alabama Environmental Council and Wild South. Publisher of the Bama Environmental News for more than 18 years. Career highlights include playing an active role in the creation of Alabama's Forever Wild program, Little River Canyon National Preserve, Dugger Mountain Wilderness, preservation of special places throughout the East through the Wilderness Society and the strengthening (making more stringent) the state of Alabama's cancer risk and mercury standards.