Upper School Computer Science and Robotics Teacher Autumn Rogers never thought that she would do two things: 1) go to art school, and 2) teach high school. She worked as a programmer for the better part of a decade after she graduated from the University of Utah with her B.S. in Computer Science, but turned her career on its head to pursue an MFA in Art in Technology at the California Institute of the Arts. In spring 2021 she joined the Westridge faculty, where she discovered her passion for teaching coding and engineering.
We sat down with Rogers to talk about why she chose Westridge, how her classes are informed by her industry experience, and her philosophy that anyone can code.
You’ve had a wide range of experiences in your career. How did you end up at Westridge?
After years of working in software development, I decided to quit my job because I didn’t really feel like I was contributing anything of real value to the world. At the time, I was also doing an experimental, performance-art style of music that involved using Arduino (an open-source hardware and software often used in robotics) and programming sensors to record data and translate it into music. So for example, I had these gloves that would turn the way I moved my hands into sound. It was very strange, but I loved it! And someone suggested to me that I should go to art school, which I had never considered before but decided to do.
When I was at CalArts, I did an independent study with Ian Ingram, who used to teach robotics at Westridge. He told me about the school and referred me for this job [teaching robotics and computer science], and it’s been amazing! I love my job. The exciting thing about being someone who worked in the industry, now teaching high school, is that I can help students understand what actually matters, what they actually need to know.
Did your experiences in art school inform the way you teach STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) subjects now?
I do think it broadened my perspective. Before I went to art school, I was very STEM-focused. Going to art school helped me understand the many ways that art and technology and science can interact and support each other.
I also think I learned about teaching for different learning styles. I took a lot of classes myself that were lecture-based, and it can be so difficult to retain information that way. Now I try to make my own classes very hands-on to help make abstract concepts more interactive and tangible.
Tell us more about your teaching philosophy and teaching for different learning styles.
I believe anyone can write code. The main limiting factor is that it can be very tedious, especially for kinesthetic learners, so I really try to make my classes engaging and hands-on using props and other physical examples, so that I can explain a concept in multiple different ways.
I am autistic and I think partly because of that I am, compared to the average person, very comfortable with pure abstraction. But while the traditional methods of teaching coding worked very well for me personally when I was in college, I would often look around the room and see that it was not working for everyone. So now, as a teacher, I try to approach teaching programming from multiple different perspectives and for many different learning styles [Editor’s Note: Click here to see an example of one of Rogers's recent projects, a Halloween-themed puzzle box that required students to solve a series of interconnected computer science problems in order to unlock the prize inside]. My worst nightmare is for someone to leave my class and think that they’re bad at programming, but that maybe they could have done it if I’d just taught it in a way that made sense to them!
I hope that students come out of my class understanding what goes into writing code, because so many people think it’s like magic. But it’s like learning to speak Finnish—there’s nothing magic about knowing how to speak Finnish, you just have to have been taught Finnish. So even if my students never take another programming class, they’ll at least have a basis for understanding how it works and hopefully computers are a little demystified for them.
What are some of your favorite class projects you’ve been part of?
In addition to teaching computer science, I started at Westridge working largely in the STEAMWork Design Studio, so much of my work revolves around the projects that utilize that space and its tools. I love the 3D-printed boats project in seventh grade. It was so cool to see the designs the students came up with, and there was one very successful boat that looked like an axolotl (an aquatic animal made famous by the game Minecraft)! It was very creative.
I also did an open-ended web game project in my AP Computer Science Principles class, where I asked students to make any kind of web game they wanted. A couple of my students ended up making an old school text adventure game, where one of the ending options was that you get killed by Joe Exotic (i.e. the “Tiger King”)!
In the spring, I teach about chaos theory and fractals. We talk about why it is that we can predict solar eclipses a thousand years in the future but we can’t predict if it’s going to rain next week—it’s because of chaos theory, and chaos has a shape (a fractal), and here’s what a fractal is, etc. Last year we had a contest about who could make the prettiest fractal, and the winner had their fractal printed on a big poster.
Why teach at a girls’ school?
The fact that this is a girls’ school is just so special to me. And part of what is so special is that in this context, students aren’t afraid to ask questions, not know the answer to things, mess up, have problems getting stuff to work, try again… It’s such a different environment, when you don’t feel like you’re the representative of your gender and so you don’t feel like you have to be amazing at coding, because otherwise it’s a sign that “girls can’t code,” or something. There are no limitations that are assumed about them based on their gender.