A spirited teacher reshapes the computer science classroom for 21st-century makers

Doug Bergman and a female student collaborate on a reprogramming a tiny aerial drone.

Doug Bergman believes computer science is changing. In his view, it’s no longer reserved just for students who want to work in technology. Doug knows a basic understanding of computer science will enable his students to solve tomorrow’s problems in just about any career they choose.

That’s why, as the computer science instructor at Porter-Gaud School in Charleston, South Carolina, Doug invites tiny drones, talking robots, augmented reality and other pieces of the future right into the classroom, encouraging his students to become skilled, 21st-century creators.

“Think of all the industries you can think of right now, and think of where technology fits into those industries. For many or most of them, probably, it’s fundamental. Everything that the people in that world do is with an instrument or a sensor or a gadget or some software, or a piece of hardware,” he says. “Don’t we need people to understand both that world, whatever it is, and someone to be able to create those tools?”

Computer science has a place next to reading, writing and arithmetic, meaning it requires a curriculum with appeal just as broad, says Doug. “Our program doesn’t necessarily target the hardcore computer science kid. We get that kid, they love it, and they’re our special projects kind of a kid. But I think computer science today is really for the kid who isn’t that—the boy or girl who is great at real estate or business or biology or history, or whatever subject they may love.”

A student shows Doug Bergman his progress on a Kinect camera project.

Doug designs practical and creative projects as a way of teaching students to express themselves like a computer scientist – through algorithmic thinking. “I don’t think me standing up there rambling on about theoretical things, that they’re not really using at that moment in time, is the best way to do it,” he says. “You create an environment where there’s lots of opportunity to learn and lots of opportunity to maybe not succeed, right? Not necessarily fail, but it’s okay to make mistakes and experiment and explore,” he says. “Can you take this idea and convert it into a series of steps and processes? That’s what algorithmic thinking is.”

As Doug’s students are learning, their algorithmic thinking can lend itself to creativity and the realms outside of computer science too. “The more I learn about computer science, I think, the more questions I start to ask about other ways I can simplify problem solving,” says Ali, a senior who plans to study computer science in college. “I’m in calculus now, and it’s really interesting to see how the two classes relate to each other, not really in what we’re doing but how we go about solving problems. I think those skills kind of apply in every life situation,” she says. “Just debugging in a non-coding sense, like figuring out problems with family or friends or school work.”

Students sit in a circle around a small, bipedal robot as they program its behavior.

Gelsey, who designed a game that uses space battles alongside lessons about balancing chemical equations, says, “It’s a lot about discovery. We explore projects on our own, and we do our own research to create our project the way we want it to be.”

A female student picks up a small drone before programming its impending flight.

“I think this class is probably the most useful one I’ve taken,” says Haley, a senior working on a project to program drones. “Engineering and computer science in general is just problem solving. That’s a skill that you’re going to need anywhere.”

The success of Doug’s approach is further evidenced in how projects are advanced without becoming unapproachable. One of his students, Rebecca, created a coronary bypass simulation using the Kinect camera for Xbox. “It walked you through how to do the procedure, and another page showed the different parts of the heart and how they function,” she says.

Charles, a 9th grader, is working on spatial mapping in augmented reality with Microsoft HoloLens, the headset that overlays holographic information on a user’s field of vision. “I got really interested in the HoloLens because I’m working with the Medical University of South Carolina in virtual reality on eye simulations for people with glaucoma,” he says.

A male student reaches out to interact with a three-dimensional diagram of a human heart, seen through Microsoft Hololens.

Doug wants to inspire other teachers to take up the cause of computer science in their own classrooms, and he believes educators owe it to their kids to do so. “We’ve got to get to a point where it’s not something that an occasional school does, or an occasional kid does. It’s got to be something that everyone does,” he says. “As easily as they can write an essay or fill out an application form, they have to be able to write a program or design some kind of software or app.”

To join Doug and this community of innovators working to connect, engage and collaborate on work that prepares students for the jobs of tomorrow, become a Microsoft Innovative Educator today. And for those specifically teaching computer science, sign up to join the Microsoft Yammer computer science network for educators and connect with Doug’s growing community of computer science teachers.