The American School in SwitzerlandThe American School in Switzerland
Faculty Feature: Mr. Isaac Carey

Alex Gabriel '23 interviewed AP Calculus and AP Computer Science Teacher Mr. Isaac Carey, who has worked hard to grow the School’s Computer Science Program since starting at TASIS in 2019.

Can you please describe your educational and professional background?
I did my undergraduate studies at the University of Virginia (UVA) and majored in Physics. And then I stayed at UVA to get a Master’s Degree in Mathematics Education. Since then I’ve taught math and computer science for 17 years—eight years in Virginia initially, then two years in Dubai, and then another five years back in the US before coming to TASIS in 2019. I’ve taught all kinds of different subjects over the years, including AP and IB courses, statistics, cryptography, and probability theory.

You have so much experience teaching in different places around the world. How would you compare or contrast teaching in Switzerland, the United States, and Dubai?
I find it interesting that there are more similarities than differences. It’s amazing to me how across the world and even when you’re bringing in kids from different backgrounds, ethnic groups, nationalities, and so on, it happens to be that there are always some common threads that bring them together, and you see that it’s very easy to be a new student because everybody is very welcoming. I think this is particularly prevalent for international students because not a lot of people are “home,” so to speak.

But learning math when it’s taught in a language that is not your first language can be more difficult, so when I feel like I’m doing a good job communicating an idea, I might not be if the students who are listening don't fully understand the language I’m using. A lot of the adjustments I’ve had to make, especially at TASIS, are based around the idea of making sure I’m breaking down the ideas into concepts that are easily translated—or that are using basic words to talk about deep concepts.

How would you describe your teaching philosophy—your general approach to teaching?
In general, my goal is to encourage metacognition: the idea that you are thinking about your own thought process. It’s a very difficult thing for teenagers to slow down and make sure they’re aware of what they’re thinking. It is a very high-level function to be able to reflect on your own thinking. 

Most of the time in my classes we’ll have a discussion, I’ll introduce new material, and the students will have to practice. But the idea is that when you are practicing, not only are you trying to learn the material but you’re also trying to be aware of how you’re thinking about things. So that if you make a mistake, it is not, “Oh, I said it was five and it was four.” It is much deeper than that. I want to encourage students to think, “Well, why did I get that answer? Did I just think two times three was five? Okay, I know what two times three is. But does that mean I’m rushing? Does that mean I’m worried?” 

And so we can change how they operate as test takers and as students through the vehicle of math. Those skills apply in other subjects as well. If you’re thinking about a history test, are students missing questions that they know the answer to because they’re rushing through it? Ideally, students begin to develop that awareness in their own heads while they’re taking a test and think, “Okay, I’m spending too much time on this question. I need to maybe just come back to it later, or I need to do this…” This is a set of skills that will help them throughout life. If they can manage and understand their own thought processes, it’s going to make their lives a lot easier.

Can you discuss how the Computer Science Program has grown at TASIS in recent years?
TASIS initially offered AP Computer Science before my time—until around 2005 I believe. In recent years, Amy Bloodworth has taught some computer science at the Middle School and High School level, which is great. The courses are robust and get kids interested at an earlier age. She also offers robotics as an after-school program and Middle School coding classes that prepare students for the High School level.

But in recent years, there wasn’t an end point where students could culminate and have something to show to universities that said, “I’m really interested, and here is what I’ve done.” So based on informal discussions and coding lessons I had with students, many of whom demonstrated a clear interest in taking their skills to the next level, my thought process was, “I have some experience with this. I could take this on if we have the interest in it.” My proposal was to bring back AP Computer Science instead of adding IB Computer Science, which is a two-year commitment. The AP course is just a one-year commitment. It’s hard, but it’s possible to come in cold and, if you’re willing to study and put in the time, you can find success. So in the fall of 2020, we started with 15 or 16 students and very quickly whittled down to seven because many of them wanted to take the course but found the rigor to be too much. For some it was too difficult to keep up with when they had all their other subjects to contend with.

And of course it was a pandemic year. There were a lot of other things going on. Given that, we were happy to run the course in any capacity just to get it off the ground. Out of the seven students, two or three came in cold, meaning they hadn't had any coding experience before. And one of them came in, put in the time every day, and ended up getting a 4 on the exam. Overall the students achieved a mean score of 3.43, which is comfortably above the world average. So I would say that despite the obstacles, we had a lot of initial success, and that’s something I’ve been able to build on in year two of the program. 

This year we have 15 students enrolled in AP Computer Science as we reach the midterm point of the fall semester, and I’m confident we’ll have more than a dozen that will stay for the full year. Once again, the students have entered the year with various levels of coding experience, but the course lets them build confidence, build awareness, and become good at computer programming and algorithmic thinking—like how to break down a problem. 

We'll do things like solving a random maze, which requires a lot of thought. You may look at it and think, “I should go this way.” But as you begin to break down your thought process, you’ll wonder, “Wait, why did I actually decide to go that way? Why don’t I make a right turn in this maze?” And for a lot of people, it’s because they can see that it’s the right way to go. But how do you tell a computer to do that, especially when the computer can’t “see” the maze the way a human does? And so the big challenge in computer science is, how do you look at a process that a human does automatically and make a computer replicate it? It takes a different style of thinking and requires a very structured, detailed way to communicate that.

I think it’s really interesting how a lot of STEM subjects connect to larger ideas of just rewiring your brain. And they can connect to so much more than just the material—you’re learning so many skills.
Definitely. There are a lot of different sets of vocabulary for different subjects, but a lot of them end up saying the same thing, either with a different end goal or a different set of processes. All of them involve thinking a certain way about a certain topic. And the more that you can see that overlap, the easier a lot of things become.

Why do you think that STEM education holds such an importance in today’s world?
I think the main thing is that in the modern world it’s difficult to get through even a day without wanting or needing to access technology. And so even if you’re not planning to go into a field that’s code-heavy, it is useful to think about how those things are developed, how they’re made, and how they interact with people so that you can think about your role and your place in that entire process. Students who take AP Computer Science may not end up going a hard coding route, but it’s interesting to me that if they go into any other facet, they can use some of those ideas and thought processes in whatever they end up choosing.

What do you like most about teaching your classes—and teaching STEM specifically—at TASIS?
I’ve really enjoyed having to draw upon different styles to teach various levels of math and teach coding. They all require very different skill sets. If you walk into a computer science class, there’s a lot more discussion because there’s not one way to do it. In math, especially in lower level math, there’s generally a correct way to solve a problem. The other ways are inefficient, or there is something wrong with them. As you get into higher levels of math, there are more options and there are often multiple right answers to a question. In Computer Science, you can sometimes get things done quickly. And maybe you can get them done quickly but it takes a lot of space. Maybe you can get them done quickly and it takes less space but a little more time. And so you think about not just getting the answer, but how you get the answer and the resources required to obtain it.

That’s something that’s really appealing to me about computer science. In math, you’ll think, “Oh, well, I worked on this problem, I got the answer, and I handed it to you.” But in computer science, you’re building something that other people will use. And so it’s a whole different thought process and a different approach that I’ve really enjoyed.

And specifically at TASIS, have you noticed any differences with your previous teaching experiences?
On the whole, I find students to be pretty similar wherever I go. I don't run into a lot of issues with disrespect or with kids not at least coming to class, knowing that they have a certain set of expectations to uphold. Sometimes there are varying levels of motivation and students might not be overjoyed to get to work, but I think part of my job is to give them some of that joy and passion and help them see that they can, in fact, get into this subject. I’ve enjoyed that part of it. 

This is also my first boarding school, and I live in the dorm with freshman boys. So probably my biggest professional challenge has been making that move. I feel like I’m confident in my teaching abilities, and I’m able to keep working on that and making adjustments every year. But the big adjustment for me has been living in a dorm. I’m always on campus. I’m eating meals here, I’m here on the weekends—all that stuff. So that’s been a very big change for me lifestyle-wise and teaching-wise. But it has also been rewarding in its own way.

Do you think the fact that some of the students at TASIS are boarders has influenced their responsibility or how they approach certain problems in comparison with the ones who don’t have to live away from home?
I think so. I think a lot of the life skills I see our boarders develop are things I didn’t necessarily develop until college. Living with a roommate who you may not get along with, for example. Look, you might not be best friends, but you learn to cohabitate. It's a big skill, and I didn’t have to do that because I didn’t live with anyone but my family until college. 

And so I see students develop a lot of personal skills throughout the year: “Can I interact with a group when my parents are here? Can I manage my time? Can I manage my money?” All those things that you don’t have to deal with when you live with your family all the time—you see those skills needing to be developed more quickly at a boarding school. The result is that the transition from high school to college is a lot easier for boarding students because so many of those things aren’t new to them when they go. 

Aside from teaching math and computer science and being a dorm parent, do you have other responsibilities at TASIS?
This year I’m the AP Supervising Teacher, meaning I handle all the in-school needs for the AP program. That includes meeting with parents to discuss the differences in appeal between the AP and IB programs, supporting all the AP teachers at the school, and making sure that the students in AP classes are holding up their end of the bargain. 

With regard to students, we have an AP enrollment policy where we ask them to acknowledge that they’re aware they need to maintain a total GPA and effort average of six throughout the year. If this isn’t happening, I’ll have a meeting with them just to talk and see what’s going on. Are they in a position where they don’t have enough time to be successful? Meaning, if it were their only class would they be doing just fine? But when they have five classes and three of them are APs, of course it’s much more difficult. Or are they not putting in the time they need? Is there something with their study habits that isn’t translating to success in the AP classes? Those are the kinds of things we discuss as we look to get them back on track.

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