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K12 students code beyond computers

Computational thinking gives students a learning edge in all subjects
  • CORE COMPETENCY—A student at Eufaula City Schools participates in Hour of Code activities that introduce learners to computer science.  The rural Alabama district starts coding instruction in kindergarten and also provides all teachers with PD.
  • PROGRAMMING PD—Teachers in the Issaquah School District near Seattle hone their computer science skills as part of a districtwide effort to integrate coding into subjects across the curriculum.
  • ANALYTICAL THINKING—Students have more opportunities to develop logic and problem-solving skills in the K5 computer science program at Broward County Schools in Florida.

How do you ensure students who excel at math remain engaged? Heidi Williams intended to solve that challenge by starting an after-school coding club while she was a gifted-and-talented teacher at Bayside Middle School near Milwaukee.

Instead of using pen and paper, her students created an interactive children’s book on Scratch, the MIT Media Lab coding suite that lets users create games, stories and simulations. And the more of this kind of coding activity they did, the better their math test scores got.

Now a computer science curriculum specialist at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Williams researches this correlation. One possibility is that the computational thinking skills developed while coding help students break down complicated problems—on and off computers, she says.

“When kids get a difficult problem, they don’t know where to start,” says Williams, author of No Fear Coding, part of a computational thinking series published by the International Society for Technology in Education.

“One of the things the computer science field is really good at—and especially the discipline of coding—is if students want to make something work, they have to decompose it into its smallest pieces.”

As coding becomes ubiquitous for students of all ages, educators are looking for ways to use computational thinking in other content areas. Advocates say this integration should start in elementary schools because computer science courses in middle or high school tend to be optional and may not reach all students.

“To me, computational thinking and coding have become just as important as reading and writing, and I never thought I would say that as a former English teacher,” says Elisabeth Davis, superintendent of Eufaula City Schools in Alabama.

It’s a rural district where all teachers receive training from Code.org, and coding lessons start in kindergarten with programmable robots.

“As I tell teachers,” Davis says, “it’s not a leg up, it’s a minimum skill that our kids need to know.”

Use computational thinking outside STEM

In language arts

Create social networks of literary characters to better understand their relationships: “How often do Romeo and Juliet meet? What is the outcome of each interaction?”

In history

Identify patterns or trends in historical events: “What does the American Civil War have in common with civil wars in other countries?”

In social studies

Create models to study relationships: “What are the implications of giving women the right to vote or access to education? Do these effects play out the same way in various countries?”

Source: Shuchi Grover, an education researcher who studies STEM in K12 with Stanford University and the SRI International institute

Coding in the afternoon

Computational thinking covers more than learning how to code or even how to use computers. Rather, it teaches problem-solving techniques that draw heavily on logic, sequencing, and trial and error. It also promotes persistence, confidence and tolerance for ambiguity, according to ISTE and the Computer Science Teachers of America.

Key components include:

  • organizing and analyzing data
  • representing data through models and simulations
  • automating solutions through algorithms (a series of ordered steps)
  • generalizing the problem-solving process to apply it elsewhere

Coding—whether students create a computer game or program robots to perform tasks—inspires computational thinking because it requires modeling, using if-then logic, testing, and debugging and retesting, says Shuchi Grover, an education researcher who studies STEM in K12 with Stanford University and the nearby SRI International institute.

These skills can transfer to other, non-computer science content areas but that does not happen automatically; just because students code in the morning doesn’t mean they will apply algorithmic thinking to that afternoon’s reading lesson, Grover says.

Instead, teachers have to make those connections out loud and be explicit in instructing students to “use an algorithm” or “look for the pattern”—as in, “Look for the pattern in these sentences. What rules for grammar can we draw from the pattern? Can we apply these rules to other sentences?”

During coding or other computer science lessons, educators should focus as much on foundational principles, such as patterns and logic, as they do on coding language and technical skills. More educators should learn these concepts, especially those who don’t typically teach computer science, Grover says.

“The future lies in computing—not just the future—even today, everything we’re doing is being shaped by computing,” she says. “I think it would be wonderful if other teachers aren’t left out of this, because it’s going to enrich a lot of our learning.”

Analyzing the Everglades

The Issaquah School District outside Seattle launched a pilot program in fall 2017 to train 30 elementary school teachers in computational thinking. Teachers had been asking to do more coding in their classrooms.

Instead of trying to squeeze the activity into an already busy schedule, the district has sought to integrate coding and computational thinking into lessons throughout the day and in all subjects, says Liza Rickey, a STEM curriculum specialist in Issaquah.

“They’re learning computational thinking first and foremost, and then using that across the curriculum—coding being one of those avenues,” Rickey says.

Issaquah students began using computational thinking at different grade levels and in various content areas.

Fourth-graders, for example, made interactive, “20 Questions”-style games on historical figures, places and events. First-graders created show-and-tell exhibits with animated penguins talking about their characteristics and how they adapt to their environment.

Integration took place offline too: A kindergarten teacher had students use an algorithm to fix the messy process of lining up at the door—as in, “When the teacher says, ‘Line up,’ students should:

  • get up and push in their chairs
  • walk to the door 
  • don’t touch anything on the way”

“They’re going back and debugging their line-up routine as a class,” says Valerie Buck, an instructional technology specialist at Issaquah. “(It’s) keeping that thinking skill throughout their whole school day—not just on the computer when it’s time to do our coding lesson,” she adds.

At Broward County Public Schools in Florida, officials are developing a model for integrating STEM and computer science in K5 with the help of a National Science Foundation grant. The goal is to give younger students more opportunities to practice problem-solving and logic, says Lisa Milenkovic, the district’s STEM and computer science supervisor.

In fourth grade, for instance, students put an analytical lens to the problem of invasive species, such as pythons, in nearby Everglades National Park.

They made board games and then programmed computer models to better understand how pythons affect the habitat and food supply of native species, asking questions like: “Which species suffer the most? Do any species benefit from the pythons being there?”

Modelling these relationships helps students see these relationships and draw conclusions: “If pythons are there, then ___; if the pythons leave, then ___.”

Learning soccer logic

Computational thinking integration isn’t just for younger students. The Ellensburg School District in Washington found success this year with a program for high schoolers that combines computational thinking with soccer.

GameOn is a partnership with Microsoft, Code.org and Central Washington University that incorporates coaching strategies from the world-renowned Real Madrid professional soccer club. College-age mentors work with about 60 students at Ellensburg’s alternative high school, playing soccer in real life and then programming a soccer-themed game as a team.

In the past, the district had taught technology in isolation, says Jeff Cochran, Ellensburg’s director of innovative and alternative education.

“It’s more project-based, more integrated with multiple subjects—multiple areas that might not seem like they fit: leadership and coding and soccer,”  Cochran says. “Soccer is logic-based: Why do you kick (the ball) this way or dribble it that way?”

The program was designed to appeal to students who were not otherwise interested in coding, and it seems to be working. They are engaging with the curriculum and taking more academic risks—for example, moving from programming the computer game to programming robots, Cochran says.

“Students who in the past almost refused to do those things are saying, ‘I can do this, I can try this.’” 


Abby Spegman is a freelance writer based in Washington.