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Shannon Houtrouw

What is your official title?

Teacher. I am a teacher at the Kalamazoo Area Math and Science Center (KAMSC). I teach computer science all day, I’m certified in computer science and mathematics, and I volunteer as our computer teams’ advisor.


What is KAMSC?

It’s a half-day pullout magnet high school for math, technology, and science, and it’s open to the whole county. The students go through an application process, and there are probably around 300+ kids that apply for 85 seats for the freshman class.


What’s an average day in the ‘Zoo look like for you?

I show up around 7:30am, and then teach until 2:00. Then I grade and prepare for the next day or do CS team stuff until 5:30, and then leave when the custodian runs me out with a vacuum cleaner.


Can you tell us about your background/passion?

I got my undergrad degree in computer science at Oklahoma Christian University. I had been working full time for General Motors on the assembly line, and when I got the degree, I transferred into data processing. Ross Perot had just sold GM his data processing company, EDS. It just made sense; I liked what I was doing, and I wanted to stay with GM. I had no idea where I’d end up after training, but I landed in Michigan (Detroit area) in the mid 1980’s.

After working for GM/EDS for a few years, I left and got my Masters in math education. I was teaching computer classes as a grad assistant while I was getting my degree, and when I finished, they hired me full time. I was an instructor/professor initially for Harding University and then for Rochester College. You have to get a Ph.D. to move up, so I came to Kalamazoo to work on a Ph.D. at Western.

That was going well, but there happened to be a local math science center that desperately needed a computer teacher; the previous computer science teacher retired somewhat abruptly, and I was hired the day before the students came. I went into it thinking it would be a temporary thing – take a break from the Ph.D., help them out – and here I am 18 years later still teaching and no Ph.D. It didn’t take long for me to realize that I liked what I was doing at KAMSC better than what I would have done had I finished the PhD. As much as I liked higher ed, what I was able to do with the CS program at KAMSC was even more exciting. I got to further develop KAMSC’s Computer Science curriculum, and build the KAMSC CS Teams program from scratch; it’s been really fun.


Tell us about your classes.

What I’ve tried to do over the years is find opportunities for more and more students to be successful. Young people like competition, and if you can make work fun, I think they work harder. The late Randy Pausch called it a “Head Fake” – if you can make someone work on something that’s perceived as hard and have fun at the same time, it helps the person more than they realize.

I knew I had to change the sophomore Computer Studies class to be more of a bridge to the AP Computer Science course. It was originally PageMaker, Word Processing, and Excel, but I wanted the class to increase the students’ level of success as they went on to take AP Computer Science. I wanted to teach them how to think before they jumped into the hard-core programming coursework; I truly believe the success rate in college programming classes would be a lot higher if students are first taught how to think critically.

After my first year at KAMSC, I started to change the nature of the course and brought in coding. I learned about a series of computer science contests called American Computer Science League (ACSL); it helped me change my curriculum, and it was something the students could do in class. If they did well on the four monthly rounds, they could go to an annual International All-Star competition, and we’ve qualified for it every year.

The 9th graders are all required to take our Information Technology (I.T.) course. But I don’t get the students until they take my sophomore Computer Science (C.S.) class. Then, if they want to, they can take my CS electives as juniors and seniors. That’s where the fun and competitions really take off!


And what about the teams that you’ve started?

Between KAMSC and their home schools, the students really have their plates full. If CS Teams was just another after school program, the number of students that could participate would be pretty limited. I basically have integrated some team stuff into the curriculum. Sometimes the students are part of a team and they don’t even realize it yet! It’s so much a part of the curriculum and coursework that later, I’ll tell them how they did, and they’ll be like, “Oh, we won? Really?”

Some of them have won individual awards, too. At the end of the day, these kids can walk away from this experience and they can say, “I was on a computer team and we won.” Every year we’ve done the ACSL Classroom contests; we’ve won it outright for 14 of the last 16 years.

In 2002 we started travelling to university hosted team competitions, and the format is usually one computer and three people who are trying to solve a number of problems in a given amount of time; It’s the same ACM style that colleges use. The very first contest we attended (besides ACSL All-Star International) was at Saginaw Valley State University. I started with a core group of five people (4 guys, one girl). Ten years later we brought a team of 78 people to SVSU (46 guys, 32 girls).

Something that’s really important to me is getting more female students involved. CS Teams should not just be a boys club. I don’t want just a few nerdy guys, I want all of my students to be successful in CS. I tell the students that KAMSC CS Teams is a coed sport. And it really is.


What do you love most about Kalamazoo?

What I love most about Michigan is my wife, since she is from Michigan. And what I love most about Kalamazoo is my job. I also love that Kalamazoo is a big education hub with lots of opportunities for the youth in this area.


What do you think can be improved?

I would like Kalamazoo to be a mecca for high school computer science. An important part of that equation is to get more of the local companies to recognize the homegrown talent here and take advantage of it.


What have you been jammin’ to recently?

If you got into my Pandora site, you’re going to find something you like and then you’re going to find stuff where you’re like, what in the world is this? I don’t like really hard rock, but I like pop and Christian music; I like instrumental stuff, like George Winston. I even like a little bit of hip-hop, (the PG-rated stuff anyway).


How do you take your coffee?…or do you?

Regular coffee with cream. I mostly drink French roast.


Do you have a “go to” spot in Kalamazoo?

Henderson Castle is a nice place where you don’t have to go very far, but you still feel like you are getting away. The first time we went was when my wife turned 50, and it’s so cool because they have all of these different rooms you can choose from. When you make the reservation, you can pick from different style rooms, like a Dutch-style room, Italian-style, Tibetan, etc. We’ve been there four times now and picked different rooms each time. It’s really fun.


If you could give your younger self a piece of advice, what would it be?

I can’t really say, I’ve tried to live my life with as few regrets a possible. There’s not a lot I look back and say I wish I would’ve done this differently. Maybe I’d tell myself to go home and spend more time with my kids. I do spend a lot of time with my three kids, but probably about five years ago, I was staying at work till 8:00pm, sometimes later, and it shouldn’t be like that. My kids are 22, 19 and 11 – one boy, two girls. The two older ones attended KAMSC. It was interesting having them in my classes.


What did you want to be when you grew up?

I’m still trying to figure that one out, ha! Teaching is something that I think found me. People talk about getting the teaching bug, and I think for me it was something I caught when I was not aware. Even when I was at EDS, it didn’t take long for me to figure out that I was happiest when training people, giving presentations, etc.,

I don’t think it was until I went back to get my graduate degree that I finally realized what was happening. I was teaching as a graduate assistant, and back then I was so ecstatic about how fun teaching was – I even enjoyed the grading (something I really don’t enjoy now)! I think other people saw that in me before I saw it myself. Teaching got a hold of me, and I’m really glad it did.


Who would play you in a movie?

For looks, people have told me hey, you look like Nicholas Cage. I don’t know so much anymore though, he’s kind of been changing his look.


What is your proudest moment for your students?

I don’t know if you can pick one moment, my students have given me so many to choose from. But I’ll share a recent accomplishment that was truly professionally satisfying. In the last three years, my female students have been applying for this award called Aspirations in Computing from the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). They’ve been very successful in getting those awards at both the regional and national levels.

We’ve been having so many of those young women earn those awards that when they had the awards celebration last year in Lansing, we had a whole bunch of people go. Michigan State University was also hosting their high school competition later that same day. We had 16 ladies getting awards that day, and the MSU contest due to space constraints, limited us to bringing only 18 students. I didn’t think it would be right to tell any of the 16 girls attending the award ceremony that morning that we didn’t have enough room for them on the team that afternoon. So I made the decision to take an all-girl team to a coed, predominantly male competition. The style again was three people to a computer, and this was a 3 or 4 hour contest.

Our girls did so well that they obliterated their male competitors, and our main rival, Midland High. I had six all girl teams. Two of our teams finished all of the problems with about an hour to go. Only one of our competitors finished all the problems and that was with only 3 minutes remaining. That was a fantastic day! Like in golf, a small score is a good score. The winning team had 300 points and the rest of the teams had 500 points and over. We destroyed them! That was one of my most professionally satisfying moments ever. These KAMSC coders broke a lot of stereotypes that day! And it wasn’t a fluke either. Four of these young ladies went onto the ACSL International All-Star Invitational in Denver last May and placed 1st in the U.S. in their division!


Tell us about your tie…

XKCD…a gift from a student.


Shannon, thank you for taking the time to meet with us and sharing your thoughts! Be sure to follow us on facebook and twitter for updates.