Snacks, recess and…coding?
INDIANOLA – Oh, sure, snacks and recess are on the itinerary of Emerson Elementary’s kindergarten class. But first they have to go to the computer lab to bone up on computer coding. And the fresh-faced students are not only engaged, they are especially quiet. No be-quiet admonishments necessary here.
All this before they can read.
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What’s going on? The Indianola Community School District has launched a district-wide computer science program that starts, well, young. The goal of the program is to have all students exposed to computer science throughout their school career so that by graduation, they have more than a working knowledge of the finer aspects of the ubiquitous computer.
“Computer science is important because it covers every facet of our lives,” said Wren Hoffman, the computer science consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “Computer science isn’t just about the computer itself or keyboarding. Rather, it delves into the creation of solutions for problems that face us. It requires creative minds to deliver this.”
Hoffman said coding is but one component of a computer science program. It also includes data and analysis, algorithms and programming, as well as social interactions and ethics that focus on the impact of computing.
Computer science is an integral part of Future Ready Iowa, a statewide initiative that is working to get 70 percent of Iowa’s workforce to be certified in high-demand jobs or college educated by 2025. That’s up from 58 percent today. Though the goal may seem lofty, it is necessary if the state wants to stay competitive in attracting good-paying jobs.
Indeed, it is the way of the future. And Indianola Community School District has embraced it. Beginning this fall, computer science will be embedded in classes kindergarten through fifth grade. Middle school students will have the option of taking some computer classes but, by ninth grade, all students will have the option of taking a course titled Computer Science Essentials, a class that basically puts all previous computer science education together.
In high school, students will have the option of taking up to three additional computer classes, including cybersecurity. In fact, high school students earn college credit for these courses through Des Moines Area Community College.
Though the ninth grade class is new and optional, about half of the incoming freshmen having already signed up for it.
“One thing we explained to the parents of incoming freshmen was exactly how many jobs are out there,” said Cindy Slauson, director of curriculum and instruction for the district.
The district kicked off their computer science program after they were awarded a grant through the Professional Development Incentive Fund that enabled them to train teachers.
That’s when the heavy lifting really started. The district put together a computer science team, which created a multi-year plan.
“We wanted to make sure it wasn’t just a one-and-done,” Slauson said. “We have mapped out the different lessons that are taught, and each lesson is connected to computer science, reading, math and science standards. All computer standards are embedded in the Iowa Core standards.”
Some might question why it’s important to start students at such a young age.
“The earlier you start, the more natural it becomes,” said Ali Sauter, the district’s technology integration coach. “These kids are eventually going into jobs that haven’t even been created yet, so they will need to be good at problem solving.”
Added Hoffman, “Studies show that by the time students get to middle school, they have already decided what they are good at and what they are not. If we lose them before middle school, think how many students who could otherwise show great potential are lost to computer science forever.”
Indianola is making a special attempt at attracting girls to the program.
“Males outnumber females four to one right now in the computer sciences,” Slauson said.
Training teachers to become computer science certified can be the most expensive aspect of putting together a comprehensive computer science program. As for software, however, much of it is free. Indianola, for instance, uses code.org and ITAPPInventor through MIT.
“But once these folks get trained, they are trained,” Slauson said. “Sure, there’s continuing education, but that’s not the same as the intensive work and duration of the training to make them certified.
“The district understands that we have to train a few more teachers. It’s in our multi-year plan.”
The district is also teaming up with private partnerships.
“It’s really nice to have partnerships with businesses so that they can have discussions with teachers and students about how this works in the real world,” Slauson said. “In the long range, we’re envisioning that high school kids can do some internships before they graduate. The students would be able to make informed decisions about what they want to do with their lives.”
The Department’s Hoffman said that districts across the state are showing growing interest in computer science.
“They have all sorts of questions, from the basic on how to begin a program to finding great professional development to teach their educators,” Hoffman said.
And to that end, a 38-member Computer Science Leadership Team has been working on creating professional development tied to the computer science standards. The group, which consists of a cross-section of Iowans from educators to Area Education Agencies to higher education to private industry, hopes to have the professional development ready by this fall.
In the meantime, it’s full steam ahead in Indianola. The educators – and perhaps even more important, the students – know this is heading in the right direction.
“It doesn’t matter what age they are, they really enjoy creating stuff,” Sauter said. “They create their own applications, their own games. That is what they do in their real lives anyway. And that’s what they want to know how to do.”
So back to the kindergarteners. If they can’t read, how can they code?
“They are prompted by easy icons they can understand and they also receive verbal instructions,” she said.