In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, school districts across the country have seen an influx of funding for student devices, internet access, and a variety of edtech tools. While equity of access is still a challenge in many communities, this new funding has advanced a unique opportunity for schools to create pathways to computer science education, overcoming some of the challenges that made it inaccessible to many students in the past.
When combined with many states’ adopting new computer science standards, the pandemic has the potential to accelerate K-12 computer science education across the country. Some schools will find it difficult to fit new computer science into an already busy daily schedule.
But there’s a fix! Educators across the country are working on curriculum to integrate computer science into core content areas, alleviating the problem of where to fit a new computer science course into the busy school day. Computer science education is also being used as a tool for gauging social emotional learning. When computing devices become available to all students, it becomes equally important for districts to have a plan for the types of programming environments and platforms students will use as they build CS skills across the grades. Computer science is quickly becoming another tool, like the pencil and paper, that students use to express themselves and to demonstrate mastery of content in unique ways. Here’s where I see these trends going in the new year.
Computer science education will be integrated into the core curriculum.
The move toward 1:1 computers for students has been underway for years, but the pandemic greatly accelerated the trend. Since the school closures that occurred in spring of 2020, many school districts have not only provided students with devices, but also hotspots and other tools to connect to the internet from home.
Giving every student a computer has streamlined the process for providing computer science lessons because there’s no need to schedule time in the school’s only computer lab or to check out devices from a shared computer cart. This practical change has made it easier to incorporate computer science lessons into core subjects taught across the day, like math and language arts.
As more states adopt computer science standards, we’re also seeing innovative curriculum development for CS integrated units, like Code.org’s CS Connections and Coding as Another Language (or CAL) from the DevTech Group at Tufts University. Teachers already have a wide range of demands on their time, so an integrated approach allows teachers to meet core content standards for ELA, math and science, while exposing students to new methods for problem-solving and self-expression through computer science education.
A progression of platforms should be part of a district’s computer science planning.
When I work with districts on their computer science instruction, I emphasize the importance of a TK-5 progression to help students transition through different platforms and devices. I also encourage districts to take advantage of free programming tools, like Scratch Jr. and Scratch, which have a wealth of available lessons and support.
However, computer science instruction for TK-2 students is often neglected, with schools thinking that these students are too young for programming. But the same people who created Scratch Jr. have developed a screen-free programmable robot named KIBO specifically for this age group. KIBO’s wooden programming blocks mirror the digital code blocks used in Scratch Jr., and the robots create a smooth transition as students move from wooden blocks to tablets.
Coding will be used to gauge academic learning and SEL.
I’ve used computer science instruction in a variety of ways in TK-5 classrooms. For example, in kindergarten classrooms, teachers have used KIBO robots in math class to have students demonstrate their understanding of number cardinality by programming the robot to move a specific distance across the carpet. I’ve also helped teachers design lessons to have 2nd-graders program sprites in Scratch Jr. to retell a story from a different character’s point of view. In 5th grade, I worked with students to design web pages in Scratch as an alternative to making slideshows for Native American history projects. In these lessons, students tackled content requirements while investigating CS principles such as sequencing, events, and loops.
In our stressful times, computer programming platforms will be a safe space for students to share how they are feeling in the classroom. It can be challenging for some students to talk about how they feel, especially following traumatic events. For example, a lesson from New York City Public Schools asked students to program an emoji in Scratch to let the teacher know their mood as they returned to school at the beginning of the year. The same thing can be done with any programming platform, including KIBO robots, as students return to classrooms in the new year and beyond. The robot can be decorated and programmed to express a mood, or it can become the class “pet,” adopted, cared for and programmed to share how it’s feeling by a different student each week.
The end goal for computer science education will be access for all students.
As a STEM educator, it has been troubling to see statistics showing that enrollment in AP computer science courses does not often reflect the demographics of school districts. How can we prepare students in lower grades to see computer science courses as an option when they arrive in high school?
No matter what programming platform they use, if we give younger students opportunities to use computer science in a variety of ways, by the time they’re in middle school, they’ll see robotics and computer programming as just another tool they use to tell stories and solve problems that are personally meaningful to them. Many students now have access to computers and the internet for the first time. We have an opportunity and obligation to provide them with the computer science instruction they deserve, and the myriad learning opportunities it offers.