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Computer science is elementary – literally

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Editor’s note: The Computer Science is Elementary Fall Institute kicked off today. Here is an explanation of this new and important statewide program, as well as a question-and-answer format with Ryan Wise, director of the Iowa Department of Education.

Twelve elementary schools from across Iowa have gathered to launch full-scale computer science programs, designed not just to familiarize students with the basics but hopefully generate interest in the field.

The schools, all considered high-poverty, each received $50,000 grants from private sector partners to kick off their programs. Gathering at the Computer Science is Elementary Fall Institute in Ankeny, the schools met with officials from the event’s collaborators, the Iowa Department of Education and the Iowa STEM Council.

The Computer Science is Elementary Project is designed to transform the elementary schools into models of innovative computer science instruction, expanding opportunities for their students and creating a statewide Computer Science is Elementary network.

Educators and parents commonly confuse learning “computer science,” such as how and why computers work, with everyday use of computers, such as making a digital presentation. Computer science is understanding how and why technologies work, exploring whether and how technology could solve real-life problems, investigating the necessary procedures, creating solutions, and learning about computing systems, programming, data, networks, and the effects on society and the individual.

The Computer Science is Elementary program is part of the Future Ready Iowa initiative, which focuses on preparing Iowans for rewarding, high-demand jobs and also getting employers the skilled workers they need. The program also is part of a broader effort to expand computer science education in every elementary, middle and high school in Iowa.

Though there are some elementary schools already dipping their toes into the computer science pool, this is the first time there’s a statewide program focusing on Iowa’s youngest students.

“Studies show that by middle school, students have already ruled out certain career paths, such as computer science,” said Wren Hoffman, computer science consultant at the Iowa Department of Education. “This approach ensures that students are exposed to this early on, which will translate to increased opportunities in the ever-changing economy, including interest in this high-demand field.”

The 12 elementary participants have two years to get in place their computer science programs; the first year is dedicated to planning, the second for implementation.

Here are Director Ryan Wise’s thoughts on Computer Science is Elementary and the direction he foresees the schools taking:

1. What is the significance of this first institute for the Computer Science is Elementary program?
It is the first opportunity to bring together all 12 schools participating in this innovative endeavor. This could be a model for schools around the state. Computer science is thought of as a new basic skill. That’s because we see more and more jobs include elements of computer science within those jobs. We’re not just talking computer science but a range of professions where people need to know more about computer science to be effective in their roles. We also recognize this is a huge growth industry in which the jobs don’t even currently exist. 

We know that with the work we are doing here, this could be a model for other schools in the state who want to head in this direction.

2. The institute brings in the 12 Iowa schools that each received $50,000 grants from private donations. All the schools are elementary schools. Why the focus on elementaries?
When you start with students at an early age, you set them up for developing those skills at an early time. This gives them the chance to go deeper, so that when they are in middle and high school, they can be that much farther along and be ready for postsecondary learning opportunities and careers in computer science. It really comes down to foundational skills early on so they can access more opportunities through and beyond high school.

3. What is the goal for these schools?
The big picture goal is that each of these schools be able to more deeply integrate computer science into the education of all of their students. They can integrate them into subjects that they currently teach, and find new areas to teach. 

Another part of meeting with the schools is to see where they are in the process and help them move further faster. We want to meet them where they are so they can do more. By the end of the day, we hope they will be in a different place from where they began.

4. Since there are only 12 schools participating, how could this work eventually effect other schools across the state?
What we see here is that these schools will become a model about how other schools can approach computer science. When doing this on the elementary level, this builds a foundation into higher grades. Learning like this transcends grade levels, so that these schools will become models for all ages of learners.

5. If your school isn’t participating in the Computer Science is Elementary program, but would like to step up its efforts in computer science, what would you recommend?
Reach out in a couple directions. First the governor’s STEM Advisory Council and the Iowa Department of Education are busy gathering resources for schools that want to move in this direction. I would also say that schools are welcome to reach out to the 12 schools to see what they are learning. In addition, the Loess Hill Elementary School in Sioux City is really inspirational in developing this whole program and have been at it for a number of years.

6. Computer Science is Elementary is a big undertaking. Are the participating schools excited?
The excitement is palpable. I remember when we announced some participating schools last spring, Marshalltown was so excited that they grabbed the governor and I to take photos. I have heard the same kind of excitement from other schools.

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Printed from the Iowa Department of Education website on August 18, 2022 at 12:41pm.