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Finding Solutions to the World's Problems

Kevin Gallagher has taught almost “everything you could possibly teach” in math. When he volunteered to take on a new challenge – AP Computer Science – he immediately enrolled in professional development and gathered as many resources as he could find.

“When I’m teaching, I always want to do different things and don’t just want to be a sponge,” says Gallagher, who implemented the first computer science courses at Keystone Oaks High School in Pittsburgh three years ago.

As NMSI’s October Teacher of the Month, Gallagher’s leadership led to impressive student enrollment growth: about 25 the first year, 50 the second and now, in its third year, 100. That’s at a school with around 575 students total. “If we’re bursting at the seams next year, it’s a good problem to have,” he says.


Gallagher (second from left, above) understands NMSI’s mission to reach students furthest from opportunity. In computer science, that’s often women and people of color. When telling students why they should join his class, he uses a gumball analogy.

“If you ask a bunch of white men how many gumballs are in a jar, and they guess wrong and women guess wrong and minorities guess wrong, but then you take the average of all three answers, and it’s right,” he shares. “If you get people of diverse backgrounds, they’re more likely to come to the right solution to the problem, and computer science allows for that approach.”

Every problem in society and corporate America has a possible solution available via computer science, says the Keystone Oaks teacher, adding, “You don’t have to be a programmer, but wherever you work, you need to have a conversation with the programmer to solve the problem you’re having.”

Since AP Computer Science Prinicples doesn’t require prerequisites to enroll, it allows students from various backgrounds to participate and discover the value of this subject. While there are teachers and counselors who believe some students aren’t equipped to take AP courses, Gallagher doesn’t see it that way. Even if students don’t receive a qualifying score (3 or above) on the AP exams, earning a 2 or above means students are college ready in that subject. And exposure to high-quality, rigorous coursework will help students in whatever path they pursue after high school.

“Mr. Gallagher expresses a genuine concern in the students’ academic growth throughout each course,” says Michael Linnert, Acting Principal at Keystone Oaks. “He is a leader in the classroom, demonstrating a variety of different instructional methods designed to meet the needs of each of his students. His drive to learn new things and deliver this learned information to the students is ongoing and of great benefit to his students.”

One computer science lesson from NMSI that Gallagher uses in his classroom is drawing a figure and writing a list of instructions of how to draw and move that figure. He takes the lesson a step further and brings it to life by giving students access to magnetic tiles, large Legos, Lincoln Logs and other building materials. Students create small groups and pick two or three of these materials to build something, and then instruct others on how to build it. That’s day one.

On day two, the small groups go to another list of instructions and see if they can build it based on what’s written.

“Computer science is about algorithms and lists of instructions and learning to write properly in a language someone else can understand,” Gallagher says. “You have to figure out how to be more specific and clear, which will help with coding and programming.”

Sustainment and Growth
While Gallagher has seen substantial growth in the number of students at Keystone Oaks taking computer science courses, he always sees room for improvement. Most students in these classes are in AP Computer Science Principles, while only a few are in AP Computer Science A, which has prerequisites to enrollment. Keystone Oaks is in its third and last year of NMSI’s College Readiness Program, and Gallagher believes the school will have increasing numbers in CS-A in years to come.

“The blueprint is there,” Gallagher says. “We’ve gotten kids in CS Discoveries and CS Prinicples in ninth and tenth grades, so they have a shot at taking CS-A before they graduate.”

When thinking about sustainment after NMSI’s three-year program is complete, Gallagher says Keystone Oaks will continue using practices learned in this time for its English, math and science courses, and plans to apply this method to expanding their social studies courses. The teacher also is NMSI's site coordinator, helping to organize student study sessions and teacher trainings at the school, including a Laying the Foundation Summer Institute that attracted hundreds of teachers from across Pennsylvania. 

I volunteered to take on the venture [AP Computer Science] because I believe in it, and I believe in NMSI,” Gallagher says. “Even from the short presentation early on, I’ve believed in NMSI. We got a ton of resources, and those resources are going to turn into achievement and money into students’ pockets by receiving college credits.”

Know a NMSI-connected teacher who deserves recognition? Email marketing@nms.org to tell us how they are making a difference in math, science and English education for their students.