(TNS) — On Wednesday, Katy Sparks led a group of sixth-grade students to create a computer game.
With iPads and keyboards, they had to program several different components in order to make the game work. They had to program a fish to respond to keyed commands, so it could chase and catch an orange that bounced around the screen — and which also needed to be programmed. A moving shark endangered the fish; that had to be programmed, too. Up in the corner, a counter kept track of the points gained by catching the orange and lives lost by touching the shark. Students would need to create that, too.
“As we’ve been learning, it takes a lot of steps to get here,” said Sparks, the STEM and computer science coach for the Monroe County Community School Corp. “You’re going to have to break it down into smaller pieces. What do you think those pieces will be?”
The students were coding the game as part of a pilot partnership with Indiana University. Later this year, they’ll build on their coding skills to create an app designed to address a social good at their school. It’s just one of the district’s many computer science initiatives this year, which has marked a concerted effort to expand upon the subject.
Public school districts throughout Indiana are required to include computer science in their curriculum for students from kindergarten through twelfth grade, starting in July of 2021. As of last year, MCCSC had introductory computer science courses for its middle schools and several computer science offerings at the high school level. Elementary schools had numerous coding and robotics clubs, but no computer science curriculum.
That’s where Katy Sparks comes in. In addition to being the district’s STEM and computer science coach, she’s also part of MCCSC’s digital learning team, which spent much of the summer building curriculum for the district’s K-6 students. That team combed through the Indiana Department of Education’s computer science standards and developed lessons teachers could easily adapt in the classrooms.
Sparks is also part of the statewide STEM Advisory Council put in place by Jennifer McCormick, Indiana’s superintendent of public education; as well as the state’s STEM Cadre. The state education department named her a “Computer Science Champ,” in which teachers from all over the state can reach out to Sparks to ask questions or seek tips on rolling out their own computer science measures.
Since September, Sparks and the other digital learning coaches have modeled the lessons they’ve come up with in classrooms in order to teach computer science standards. The lessons come in pairs — a coach leads one, the regular classroom teacher leads the other — so that the classroom teachers don’t have to take on the brunt of the work by themselves, all at once.
The standards include coding, but “computer science” as a topic is bigger than just the programming aspect, Sparks said. The standards also want students to recognize the impact technology has on the world, and establish guidelines for good online culture. They include keeping yourself safe and your information secure on the internet, as well as how to apply technology in a positive way.
“I would say that we just want kids to be able to think critically and problem solve, and use their skills to create new things, innovate and improve the world. That’s the mission behind computer science in general,” Sparks said.
In elementary schools, kids work with block-based coding platforms like Scratch. In middle school, they use a program that lets them see the code more fully written out. Actually writing the code happens at the high school level.
At the elementary level, many of the lessons are taught without a computer at all — even the ones that lead up to actual coding. Sparks calls those lessons “unplugged.” Typically they relate to other subjects, like math or language. Before the sixth-graders of Wednesday’s gaming lesson picked up their iPads, they talked about variables — a term they understand from math classes. They “invented” robots, describing their names, functions and heights; then mixed the variables amongst their classmates to see if different combinations of variables changed the robots. A name won’t change what a robot can do, but a robot that is only two feet tall won’t be able to reach tall spaces, dramatically altering its function. The activity emphasized the idea that different variables create different, tangible outcomes, in a way that doesn’t involve a screen.
“It’s about educating teachers about how the apps should be used, how the iPad should be used,” Sparks said. “The best practice would not be to stick every single kid on an iPad and say, ‘OK, we’re playing this math game for 20 minutes.’”
Teachers are learning to integrate the curriculum into their teaching, and the digital learning team hopes they’ll feel comfortable enough with the material to teach more lessons on their own in the near future. Eddie Pierce, who teaches the sixth-grade class Sparks visited Wednesday, has had little difficulty integrating the computer science standards in his own classroom. As the math teacher at Grandview Elementary, MCCSC’s designated STEM school, and the robotics coach, Pierce was already familiar with the concepts and talking about them in the classroom.
“I’m really excited about it,” he said. So are his students, he’s noticed. “When we started doing this, they immediately were just hanging on to every word I said.”
He talks to his students often about how computer science and technology play out in their daily lives. Every app on their phone, every website they visit — each takes programming. So do drones that deliver packages, or satellites, or the Mars rovers collecting data across the solar system for NASA. Students can see those coding skills applied in their robotics teams, when they have to program robots to complete tasks; or in the app challenge, when they will try to create a product to contribute positively to their school.
“Kids begin to understand that this concept isn’t just a little concept about coding a robot, it’s a concept that’s all over the world in all kinds of different fields,” Pierce said. People talk often about how many jobs will be available for programmers, but the job market isn’t the only factor to consider. Technology will have a role in nearly every aspect of students’ adult lives. It’s already such a ubiquitous part of the world that if students don’t know how it all works, even in a general sense, they’re at a disadvantage by the time they leave school, Pierce said.
“It’s like algebra,” he said. “How many of us really sit down and work algebra problems (as adults)? But it’s good, general knowledge for all of us to know.”
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