Elementary students learn that computer science is fun
Walking into Julie Elliott’s second-grade class, an untrained eye might see chaos. But it’s actually quite different. What you are seeing is unbridled enthusiasm in their work. Their lesson today? Computer coding. Second graders??? Yep.
Perry Elementary School in the town of the same name 40 miles northwest of Des Moines has launched Computer Science is Elementary. The Computer Science is Elementary project started in 2019 when a small cohort of high-poverty elementary schools across the state were awarded $50,000 grants to develop computer science programs.
Iowa public school districts along with accredited nonpublic schools are now required to implement a K-12 computer science plan and offer at least one-half computer science course in their high schools by July 1. Additionally, elementary (grades 1-6) and middle schools (grades 7-8) must also provide high-quality computer science classes in at least one grade level by July 2023.
Part of the goal among the Computer Science is Elementary cohorts is to be able to share what they have learned along the way with other elementary schools. And at Perry Elementary, they have a lot to share.
“A big challenge we faced is recognizing that our class schedules are already jam-packed,” said Principal Ryan Marzen. “So it couldn’t be something we added to the schedule. We had to do something differently.”
The key, he said, is to learn how to embed computer science into existing coursework.
“For instance, how do you incorporate computer science into the literacy block?” he said.
The school approached developing its computer science curriculum very meticulously. In the first year, they created the computer science leadership team consisting of at least one teacher from each grade level (K-5), as well as one instructional coach, the principal and associate principal, and the district’s director of teaching and learning.
“We have a very large staff,” Marzen said of his 70-plus teachers who work with over 800 students. “So when you want to roll something out, you know it will take time.
“The first thing we did was to identify leaders who wanted to participate. We had about a dozen teachers who were very enthusiastic.”
From there, the team focused on learning about computer science and coding, including experimenting with teaching lessons and leading activities with the students.
In year two, the team taught all staff about computer science and coding during professional development, and engaged them to work in at least one computer science lesson during each semester.
Now in year three, the school is working to have staff integrate computer science across the building, including in subjects like art, music and physical education. Grade-level teachers are supported in developing and teaching computer science lessons in reading, math, science or social studies.
Nathan Horgen, the school’s instructional coach, said in developing a school-wide computer science program, the computer science team had to consider many elements.
“We had a lot of discussion about how we wanted to implement it,” he said. “What are the resources? What programs are grade appropriate? That was a two-year process. Another consideration: How do we make it relevant to our school?”
Along the way, the school has had more than its share of surprises.
“We had to revisit and revise our scope and sequence (the order in which things are taught) frequently because our students are demonstrating an understanding in some computer skills at younger and younger grades,” he said. “For example, we originally wanted the students to understand the concept of an algorithm by the end of grade two. Now, by the end of kindergarten, students understand what an algorithm is.”
So what does this look like in the classroom? Going back to Elliott’s classroom gives you a good idea.
“On Wednesdays, we have computer science day,” she said. “For our math, we do different computer science activities. I work to teach the kids computer science skills. Then they might have an unplugged activity (paper and pencil instead of a device), and then they do computer science activities on their own.”
Embedding computer science into other subjects also is key.
“When we do math stations we might put in a computer science activity that will help them understand the math,” Elliott said.
Elliott, who is on the leadership team, encourages her fellow teachers to embrace computer science.
“I tell them that it’s a lot easier than they think it is,” she said. “We as teachers normally teach skills that are already computer science skills. For instance, any time you give them a three-step direction, that’s an algorithm. They are doing computer science in their classes without knowing it.”
Computer science has become something schools can no longer ignore, Elliott said.
“I feel in the future, this is what it's going to come down to, the kids need to be exposed as soon as possible,” she said. “Our future is going to be relying on computer science. The sooner we get kids exposed, the more vested they will be in it. It also helps kids no matter what economic background they come from, it's something everyone can learn.”
And bonus: The kids love it.
“The kids are so engaged,” Elliott said. “Anytime you can get them engaged and excited, you can’t lose. It is a teacher’s dream.”
As year three starts winding down and the state awards come to a close, the school is looking at ways to fully sustain its computer science program. One possibility is partnering with local businesses for equipment.
Beyond that, Principal Marzen sees an opportunity with the unplugged approach.
“The cool thing about unplugged is that it’s sustainable,” he said. “The problem with technology is that you have to update regularly.”
The benefits of computer science in a curriculum goes far beyond acquainting students with technology.
“It’s 21st century skills -- it supports students in practicing critical thinking, communication, collaboration and creativity,” Marzen said. “Our team believes that computer science lessons help students improve across all of these areas.”
On top of it all, it’s learning made fun.
“Once the teacher does a computer science lesson, you can see how enthusiastic the kids are,” Marzen said. “It doesn’t get better than that.”