By Sheena Vaidyanathan
Thanks to code.org‘s “Hour of Code,” millions of students will get their first taste of computer programming this week, Dec. 9-13, designated as Computer Science Education Week. If schools do decide to go beyond the one hour and take the next step to add coding as a part of school curriculum, what will this look like?
Getting kids excited about coding is the easy part. What about the stuff that administrators and educators must worry about — funding, teacher development, curriculum, connection to standards? And, where do you fit this “coding class” in a school day?
One school district, Los Altos School District (LASD) in the heart of Silicon Valley, Calif., may have some of these answers. They’ve been growing their coding program over the last four years and have begun answering many of these questions. LASD started like most educational programs in any district: small, with one teacher (me), one class, in one school — and then grew it based on results. After the success of digital art as an art unit in one school, an entire district-wide program called Digital Design in 2009 was created. This weekly Digital Design class gave every student in 4th-6th grade an opportunity to be creative using digital medium. Students worked on 2D vector art, 3D designs and art through programming using MIT’s Scratch.
After two years of a successful district-wide Digital Design class, LASD made an intentional decision to focus on the programming component and on sixth grade. The goal was to expose all students to computer science with a required class — called CSTEM (the C stands for creativity, collaboration and computer science) — and not wait until students encountered it as an elective in junior high or high school.
Sixth grade is a critical age to develop interest in STEM and computer programming areas, especially for girls. Research suggests that some of the strongest influences to attract girls to computing fields are early exposure as a required part of the curriculum and computing connections to broader areas of society. This premise may be working in LASD. One sixth-grade girl writes in her CSTEM notebook: “Before I started CSTEM class I thought it was only my older brother who was tech savvy, and I didn’t even want to try programming! But later I learned how to do it and it was easy! It was also fun, I want to learn if there are even bounds to what you can do with a computer.”
FOSTERING A GOOD ATTITUDE
One of best parts of this program is the attitude students have developed to computer programming. They view code as a creative medium and programming as a social activity. Many refer to programming as difficult, but fun. “You should try coding!” one student said. “It’s really fun, but I’m not promising that it’s easy. It’s really useful and it teaches you patience.”
LASD students today are no different from the students Seymour Papert encountered about 30 years ago, when he showed us that children could program computers using Logo. They think of this work as what Papert referred to in his article as “hard fun.”
The other big success story from CSTEM is that there does not seem to be any big gender gap in computing. Both girls and boys enjoy programming at this age. The bigger challenge is to get some of them to stop coding and leave the lab when the class is over! Students often continue to work on projects at home, posting questions and fragments of code or links to finished work on Edmodo. Last year, LASD held its first coding competition with 20 percent participation from the students. The biggest surprise: More girls than boys competed in the coding competition with most of them entering a team project.
CSTEM uses a variety of projects to engage all students, from building a motherboard in 3D, using a text-based language like Processing to connect math and art, and making math video games using Scratch.
The LASD program has made an ongoing effort to involve the community with showcase events, newsletters to parents, and presenting at conferences (ISTE,CSTA, California 1st STEM conference). This has kept interest in program alive within the community and it has generously supported it through its parent-led education foundation. It does help that the district is situated in Silicon Valley and many parents are in the tech industry. However, with the national interest in teaching students coding this may now be easier in other districts as well.
What this program will look like next year is not yet known. However, as students put in their hour of code this week, they know there are many more fun hours of code coming right up.
Sheena Vaidyanathan teaches the 6th grade CSTEM Program at Los Altos School District. You can find more information about her work here.