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Computer science teacher prepares to log out from Franklin Regional classroom

| Wednesday, May 14, 2014, 9:01 p.m.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Franklin Regional computer science teacher Carolyn Stewart will be retiring at the end of the school year. She has taught in the district since 1979.
Lillian DeDomenic | For The Murrysville Star
Computer science teacher Carolyn Stewart works with members of Franklin Regional's AP Java class. Stewart will be retiring at the end of the school year.

When Carolyn Stewart started her teaching career at Franklin Regional High School, Apple just had introduced its second personal computer, Microsoft boasted a dozen employees, and a handful of university researchers laid out plans for what would one day become the Internet.

That was 1979.

After 34 years of teaching math and computer science at Franklin Regional, Stewart is set to retire this year. She has kept stride with advances in technology and often found a place for them in her classroom.

“It's very easy to do when technology keeps changing,” she said. “If you don't do something differently, they'll pass you by.”

In the mid-1980s, her students used a prototype of the Internet and connected with other schools around the world via a dial-up modem. They have programmed all types of robots, from competition-winning ones to a Roomba model to a hand-size Finch model.

Stewart, a Churchill resident, has bachelor's degrees in math and math education from Washington University in St. Louis and a master's degree in education from Harvard University, near Boston.

While she has provided ample opportunities for students to explore what are considered STEM fields — those focusing on science, technology, engineering and math — Stewart sees opportunity in computer science for all students.

“It doesn't mean that everybody's going to be a programmer,” she said. “I think it would be nice if all students had some grounding in all of this because everybody is going to be making intelligent decisions about where technology is taking us.”

One former student who has put lessons from Stewart's classroom into his career is Aleister Saunders.

Saunders, who graduated from Franklin Regional in the mid-1980s, now is associate dean for research and graduate education in the College of Arts and Sciences at Drexel University in Philadelphia. He also is an associate professor and director of the university's RNAi Resource Center.

He calls Stewart's computer-science classes “some of my fondest academic memories in all of schooling,” including not only high school but his undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral work.

He credits her passion and creativity as an inspiration.

“The passion manifests itself into energy and enthusiasm in the classroom,” he said. “She weaved personal stories with fundamental theories and concept to lead us to a higher level of understanding about computer programming, logic and mathematics.”

Theodora Chu, 18, is another Franklin Regional graduate with fond memories of Stewart's classes.

Chu attends Stanford University in Palo Alto, Calif., and is an intern for Stanford's Women in Computer Science group. The 2013 Franklin Regional graduate has another internship lined up at AT&T for the summer.

“For me, Mrs. Stewart taught me what it meant to love learning. Freshman year, I walked into her ‘Visual Basic' class thinking that learning was about gaining academic knowledge. I walked out of that class with a different definition of learning,” Chu said. “Learning is about loving life and trying to gain a better understanding of the world and people around you. Learning is about being open to walking off the beaten path and keeping an open mind toward new experiences.

“The stories Mrs. Stewart tells really shows her willingness to try new things, and her intense love of life and learning is so contagious that I'm sure I'm not alone when I say that she didn't just teach me about math or computer science. She taught me about life.”

Saunders and Chu aren't the only ones to recognize Stewart's efforts.

She recently was honored as an outstanding educator by the National Council of Women in Science and Technology.

The award, she hopes, will bring recognition to the district's efforts and highlight the importance of computer science for all students.

Julie Martin is a freelance writer fro Trib Total Media.

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