With recent research showcasing the growing number of STEM-related jobs that will be available to our graduates in Indiana in the coming years, teaching computer science skills has become as important as teaching students how to read or do math. The state has recognized this importance by mandating that all schools incorporate computer science for students in kindergarten through 12th grade.
As the career and STEM academy director for Barr-Reeve Community Schools, I helped our district integrate computer science into our K-12 students’ school days. Our program helps students develop essential skills for academic and professional success. I’ve learned a number of lessons along the way and hope districts across the nation can benefit from my experience.
When creating a computer science curriculum from scratch, don’t try to get ahead of yourself and do everything at once. Instead, focus on finding a buy-in wherever you can to get your foot in the door, and then look to gain supporters along the way. Once you can start proving the benefits of adding computer science concepts into your school’s curriculum, more support from teachers, parents, and the school board will naturally follow.
For example, since we first introduced computer science themes into our elementary schools, our middle school teachers are now noticing that their new students are seeking more problem-based learning that stems from their early introduction to computer science skills. Now, our middle school teachers are computer science advocates looking for ways to weave in more CS themes into all of their classes—because this is what their students are excited about.
Empowering your teachers
Our program uses our existing staff, who were not previously computer science teachers. As a result, we provided our teachers with the support and tools they needed to feel comfortable teaching a new subject. Our goal was to meet our teachers exactly where they were and then reassure them that there were no expectations for them to be experts in this subject matter. We were on a journey together that would be a continuous learning process.
For us, empowering and supporting our teachers has been about finding the right resources. When we found Codelicious, a provider of intuitive K-12 computer science curriculum, we were grateful for the support along the way.
With its step-by-step teacher resources, problem-based learning, and supportive team, Codelicious provided the resources our teachers needed instead of requiring the teachers to go out and try to figure it all out on their own. The support team also helped demystify its comprehensive course load by narrowing it down to the critical lessons. This helped our teachers who weren’t experts in the curriculum understand the content on which to focus.
The lessons have a clear end goal and problems for the students to solve, so teachers can easily understand where to start and what the final result should be. Good teaching is still good teaching, no matter what the subject matter is. Our teachers already had the skills and knowledge they needed to succeed, and now they also have prepared lessons and comprehensive resources.
Turning Autonomy Over to Students
When we first started implementing our computer science program, one of our teachers ran into a problem: he didn’t know why the code that the class was working on wasn’t running. He spent all weekend trying to debug the code himself, ultimately without success. To solve this problem, we called the support team at Codelicious to ask for guidance. They gave us helpful advice and a new perspective on what it means to teach computer science.
The first important lesson we learned from this was that it’s not all on the teacher to solve all problems. You get to lean on the kids and work with them. Instead of taking your time trying to solve a problem, throw it up on the board and say, “Okay, who can help debug this? What are we missing?” Have the students work through it as a team.
The second lesson is that computer science is not about being perfect. If students get partway through the lesson, they already learned more than what they knew beforehand. As teachers and educators, we can appreciate the process of teaching and learning with our students.
Now, one of our woodshop teachers is also a beloved computer science teacher who embraces a new style of teaching where he shares his teacher resources with the students, puts the problem up on the screen, and says, “This is what we’re working on today.” He facilitates learning by first giving the students some autonomy and responsibility.
Expanding the program over time
Right now, we have a K–12 computer science program that meets the state requirements and introduces each grade level to fundamental skills. Our elementary school students are becoming comfortable with core computer science ideas, our middle school students have computer science embedded in their science curriculum along with the stand-alone elective option, and our high school students are offered online computer science electives.
We’re excited about the computer science program we offer now, but we also have plenty of plans for the future. Down the road, we plan to provide more niche computer science classes that cater to different career pathways for our high school students, such as business or graphic design. Thankfully, our supportive, modular curriculum is already giving our students the foundational skills they need, so when we implement these plans, our students will be ready.
Launching a districtwide computer science program has not been straightforward or linear, but knowing that we are helping our students become college- and career-ready has made the challenge worthwhile. The computer science program is helping students learn essential skills that apply to any career or life path, like problem-solving, teamwork, and creative thinking. I am proud to have helped create an effective computer science strategy that will carry students beyond high school, and I encourage others to follow our lead.