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Comprehensive Computer Science Program Prepares Students for the World of Technology
Greg Waxberg

Pingry’s comprehensive computer science program has come a long way since its infancy in the 2000s. In fact, the curriculum is quite advanced compared with other high schools, and three of the computer science teachers in the Middle and Upper Schools used to work in the field and bring their expertise to the classroom.

The comprehensiveness of the program can be traced to its roots. In 2005, a year out of Hamilton College, where he was one of six Computer Science majors in his graduating class, Brian Burkhart was hired as Pingry’s first-ever dedicated computer science teacher. (Before his arrival, an AP class was available, but the teacher was not a programmer.) By his own account, Mr. Burkart “felt average” in computer science at Hamilton, but the discipline intrigued him, and he gritted his way through the coursework; he was determined to learn the subject. With a double major in Philosophy, he was by no means a die-hard programmer. He could easily have taught English instead, but his computer science skills were more in demand. After a brief stint teaching computer science at another independent school, he landed at Pingry and grew the School’s computer science program.

In 2012, when he was named Director of Educational and Information Technology—a K-12 position—as well as Chair of the Computer Science Department, his net widened, and he was able to build out more classes and hire additional faculty. In the fall of 2019, he became Director of Technology and Curricular Initiatives, allowing him to focus even more on strategic curricular planning—not just for the Computer Science Department, but school-wide. Currently the Director of Technology and Curricular Initiatives and Interim Director of Teaching and Learning, as well as Co-Chair of Spring Intensives and an Upper School English Teacher, Mr. Burkhart is no longer Chair of the Computer Science Department, nor is he teaching computer science, but he continues to supervise the Student Technology Committee, and the computer science program will always be near and dear to him.

“Our computer science program became popular before computer science itself was becoming popular because of Google, Facebook, and other tech companies. I see the department as ‘my baby that grew up,’ and I am proudest of helping students who haven’t been using computers for most of their lives succeed at computer science,” he says. “We have an excellent program that’s built for everyone, and it’s one of the best in the country—we’ve single-handedly raised the average non-public AP Computer Science score in New Jersey.”*

The Teachers, Including a New Chair

Now overseeing that “excellent program” is Dr. Marie-Pierre Jolly, who joined Pingry as a Computer Science Teacher in 2017 and succeeded Mr. Burkhart as Chair in the summer of 2021. A native of France, she was one of four women in her graduating class at the Université de Technologie de Compiègne and earned a Ph.D. in Computer Science at Michigan State University. Dr. Jolly spent more than 20 years as a research scientist at Siemens—coding, developing, and maintaining a complex program for Siemens cardiac MRI scanners. She eventually wanted a different challenge and transitioned to education.

The other Upper School teachers are David Gonzalez (came to Pingry in 2021) and Aye Thuzar (joined Pingry in 2011 as a math teacher and added computer science in 2012). Mr. Gonzalez worked in information technology for a decade at Johnson & Johnson (while teaching Information Systems as an adjunct professor at The College of New Jersey) and five years at EY; then, the pandemic hit and he realized that teaching could provide an opportunity to leverage his technology skills in a different way. He has been “so impressed” by the breadth of Pingry’s four-year program, compared with the offerings at other high schools, and by the curriculum that is “very much aligned with a college-level computer science curriculum—it’s not just about programming.”

Now the longest-serving member of the Computer Science Department whom Dr. Jolly calls “the strongest of all of us in theoretical computer science,” Ms. Thuzar has observed the evolution in the “number and variety of courses offered. The curriculum has five levels of courses, with more theoretical content.” The number of courses has increased partially because of her efforts (more under “The Courses”).

In the Middle School are Director of Research and Academic Innovation Dr. Danielle Mirliss P ’26 (joined Pingry in 2017), Educational Technology and Innovation Coordinator Alex Steinberg (joined Pingry in 2021), and Anupama Menon P ’26 (joined Pingry in 2019), who previously worked in information technology at Intel and Verizon and taught computer science to undergraduate business students as an adjunct professor at Fairleigh Dickinson University. She realized that she wanted to teach full-time, likes introducing computer science to Middle School students, and is bringing knowledge of “real world” scenarios to the classroom. “Typically, students have this notion that computer science has to be for people who are very strong in math and science, and that’s not necessarily the case. If you look at it through a problem-solving lens, it can be fun for everybody,” Mrs. Menon says.

The Courses

In 2005, a total of 12 students took just two Upper School computer science classes, both taught by Mr. Burkhart. Today, about 100 students each year follow a multi-year program that offers 10 semesters of curriculum, plus there are more Middle School classes than in the past. Today, Pingry is one of a handful of schools nationwide offering such a comprehensive, advanced level of computer science coursework. Only technical schools, like Bronx Science, are on par or provide more.

To fully appreciate the depth and breadth of Pingry’s computer science offerings—and its Upper School offerings specifically—it helps to understand that, at most independent schools, the high school program (if one exists) begins with an intro class and ends with the AP course. Pingry, however, offers five years’ worth of elective-based curriculum with different entry points for Upper Schoolers, depending on prior experience.

First comes the intro course, consisting of a survey class in the fall, which teaches basic concepts about computers, and a beginner programming class in the spring. Next is a class that Ms. Thuzar proposed and teaches, AP Computer Science Principles (concerning ethics and programming). The familiar, year-long AP Computer Science course follows. Then comes the first, post-AP year of higher-level coursework, divided into two semesters: Data Structures in the fall and Programming Languages & Design in the spring; Ms. Thuzar has redesigned the curriculum for Programming Languages to make it more theoretical and comparable to a college course. Capping off the sequence is Advanced Topics in Computer Science—Ms. Thuzar has also designed an Algorithms course that is being piloted in Advanced Topics and could become a future course by itself, and Dr. Jolly developed a course on Machine Learning that has been taught in Advanced Topics for the past three years.

Dr. Jolly explains what then becomes a higher-level scenario for some students: “As an example, some students test into AP Computer Science as freshmen, which means they would have Data Structures [and Programming Languages & Design] as sophomores and reach Advanced Topics as juniors, with nothing to take in senior year. Some of them want to continue and do four years, so they become a Teaching Assistant for Advanced Topics.”

Teaching Assistants attend all classes to help other students with their assignments, and they teach a month-long unit about any computer science topic, complete with classroom materials and assignments that they prepare themselves during class time. The general course material is flexible throughout the year, so these student-taught units don’t take any time away from anything else that would be taught.

Middle School courses include Computer Science 6 (required Friday course), with fundamentals of programming; Computer Science 7 (required), in which students learn game design by programming in Scratch; 3D Design and Printing (required Grade 7 Friday course), in which students learn about this growing industry with more and more practical uses; Computer Thinking and Design, with a syllabus created by Mrs. Menon (Grade 8 elective in which students explore programming using MicroBit, a credit card–sized computer), and Programming in Unity, more game design for students who want to advance past Scratch (Grade 8 elective).

Of “Computer Thinking and Design,” Mrs. Menon says that she wants to give students “an overall view of how computer science fits into the ‘real world’—how code is powering something. When most students hear ‘computer science,’ they think ‘coding,’ and I wanted to change that slightly. I wanted to make this about innovation—and powering new innovations with code.” Using the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals as a backdrop, she asks students to select a “real world” problem, think about a solution, and design a prototype for a project that’s powered by code.

What Skills Are Teachers Looking For?

Good programming habits. Dr. Jolly, who wrote millions of lines of code for Siemens, says, “You can’t just sit down and write a program. You must plan it and follow rules. I’m not only concerned about, ‘Does the program work?’ I’m also concerned about, ‘How well is the program written?’”

Name the code’s variables in a meaningful way (not “x,” “y,” and “z,” which won’t mean anything to someone else, but what the letters represent)

Clean commenting in the code. Comment on the code so that both the reader and the future-self can understand what the code does and how it does it. Dr. Mirliss says,  “Explain what you’re doing or thinking so that team members understand the creation of a variable or function.”

Good structure for the code. Keep the code simple and straightforward.

Functional code and problem-solving skills

Mr. Gonzalez tries to prepare his students for what they would experience as professionals: how to solve problems, such as taking a large, complex problem and breaking it into smaller, more manageable problems. This way, they learn how to approach scenarios that could come their way later on, whether while working on projects at Pingry or a tech company or pretty much any company that uses technology for its operations. Those problem-solving skills, he says, “transcend computer science.”

Additional Highlights of Computer Science at Pingry

More Girls Taking Computer Science

Pingry received the College Board’s 2019 “AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award” for achieving high female representation—at least 50 percent—in AP Computer Science. Pingry was one of 143 schools nationwide recognized in the category of AP Computer Science A, with 12 girls in a class of 21 students.

On a related note, girls have also joined Pingry’s Girl Code Club in recent years and participated —and won a prize three years in a row—in FemmeHacks. This is an all-women hackathon hosted by the University of Pennsylvania’s student-run organization, Women in Computer Science.

Student Tech Committee (STC)
Founded in 2011 by Mr. Burkhart, STC involves Pingry students working on technological advancements around campus.

Summer Internship Program
Since 2014, the Technology Office has hosted a summer internship program for members of the Student Tech Committee entering their sophomore year and up, plus alumni, divided into two groups: Tech (working mainly with hardware and upgrades) and Coding. Eight to 10 students in each group work on a variety of projects. As an example of a coding project this past summer, interns were reworking a five-year-old internal “event request” system for faculty and staff who need to book rooms. “It was built with older technology, but its importance has grown, so students are revamping it with the latest technology,” Mr. Gonzalez says.

CodeQuest

Beginning in 2016, under Ms. Thuzar’s management and coaching, Pingry has participated five times at the Advanced Level in this annual coding competition hosted by Lockheed Martin. The event features 15–20 questions spread over three difficulty levels. Students solve as many of those challenges as possible in two-and-a-half hours. Pingry has earned trophies three times: 2016 (2nd place), 2021 (3rd place), and 2022 (1st place).

Hour of Code
Over the years, all divisions have participated in this annual, international day of coding, usually in early December, which aims to expose all students to a bit of programming fun.


*In 2018, 3,853 students in New Jersey took the AP Computer Science exam, with an average score of 3.07 among non-public school students. That same year, 32 Pingry students sat for the exam, with an average score of 4.625. Without Pingry students, the statewide average among non-public schools would be 2.97.

Pictured from top: Former Computer Science Department Chair Brian Burkhart; Computer Science Department Chair Dr. Marie-Pierre Jolly; members of the Upper School GirlCode Club at FemmeHacks in 2019-20; and Upper School Computer Science Teacher Aye Thuzar with Aditya Gollapudi ’19 and Chris Yu ’19 with Pingry's CodeQuest trophy in 2016.

This article is based on a story in the Summer 2020 issue of “The Pingry Review.”


Contact: Greg Waxberg ’96, Communications Writer, Editor of The Pingry Review