Should your school district be teaching computer science? If so, at what grade level should you begin? In the Bellevue School District in Washington state, students are learning the subject from kindergarten up. We contacted Greg Bianchi, the district’s STEM curriculum developer as well as a project consultant with Washington STEM, for some insight:
Q: How are you involved in the effort to incorporate computer science in K-12 classrooms? Is this just in your school district, or is it a statewide effort?
A: As a STEM curriculum developer, I am focused on creating a K-12 computer science (CS) pathway for all students. This means developing and implementing CS curriculum, as well as providing professional development to teachers.
I am also involved at the state level, where I have worked with Washington STEM on the adoption of K-12 CS standards for our state. Washington STEM is now working with the state on a CS implementation plan, and I am assisting with this effort.
At a national level, the launch of the CS for All consortium is a great indicator of the momentum this work has acquired. Both the Bellevue School District and Washington STEM are members of this consortium.
Q: What prompted this effort?
A: This effort stems from the recognition that CS skills are relevant in every career field. In fact, the majority of CS jobs are found outside the software industry, and the gap between jobs and qualified employees is growing larger by the day. Therefore, equipping students with these skills is essential in preparing them for success in college, career and life.
Additionally, we believe that long-standing opportunity gaps related to gender and ethnicity in this field must be addressed. To reach all students, we need to prioritize the early introduction of these skills, and we need to integrate CS into core subjects.
Q: Are teachers and parents on board?
A: Both parents and teachers have welcomed the addition of CS to K-12 classrooms. They understand the value of these skills and recognize how engaging this subject matter is for students.
That said, we are constantly working to spread the message to all members of our community. One great strategy has been the family coding and engineering nights we run at all elementary schools. These outreach events are designed to build community awareness and support for this work. We think these events are particularly important in terms of reaching those who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.
Q: What is involved in the teacher training?
A: Quality professional development starts with communicating the rationale for the work, and then turns to developing the necessary skills in teachers. Fortunately, there are terrific open-source tools available that support the incremental development of CS skills in teachers and students.
Code.org is probably the best example. We have found that K-8 teachers quickly acquire the CS fundamentals they need to effectively teach this content to students. Part of our role in professional development is helping teachers build their confidence and recognize that teaching CS is great fun. In professional development, we model the same strategies we want teachers to employ in the classroom, such as pair programming. (In the classroom, students work collaboratively to tackle any challenge in computer science. One member of the pair is the driver, controlling the keyboard and entering the code. The other member is the navigator, providing guidance, focusing on the big picture and suggesting what to do next. Students switch roles often.)
Every professional development session we run focuses on equity issues in CS and how teachers can create inclusive environments for all students.
Q: Where is the funding coming from?
A: In Bellevue, we have received substantial funding from our schools’ foundation, which helped us get an early start on CS education. Scaling this work more broadly will require a significant investment of public and private funds.
For example, the state recently provided funds for our district to work in partnership with Seattle Public Schools on the development of curriculum and professional development resources. In turn, our commitment is to share the products of this work with all K-12 systems in Washington and beyond. Our open source materials will be available at cs4allkids.org within the next two weeks.
Ultimately, reaching all students in Washington will require a substantial investment in professional development at all levels.
Q: What special equipment is needed?
A: You can accomplish a lot of great CS learning with fairly basic equipment. In fact, many CS concepts can be taught in unplugged fashion with no equipment at all.
Ultimately, students will require a set of laptops or tablets that can be shared between classrooms. Even within a classroom, students often share equipment because we have emphasized a collaborative approach to problem solving.
Q: How is CS taught at the various levels from K through 12? Is it woven into existing courses, or is it considered its own course?
A: CS is taught in multiple ways in our district, depending on the grade level. We absolutely believe there should be time dedicated to developing CS skills at K-5. To that end, we intend for our elementary students to complete the Code.org CS fundamentals courses.
However, we also recognize the tremendous value of integrating CS within other subject areas. For example, our middle school students have used Scratch (a free website offering programming language) to model their understanding of scientific phenomena, such as the interactions of organisms in an ecosystem.
Art is another great example. We invested in littleBits, which are modular electronic components that students combine with conventional art materials to create kinetic sculptures. This type of project pulls together learning standards from art, computer science and science.
At early elementary, we invested in Bee-Bots, which are small, programmable robots that can be used to teach math and literacy.
All of these additions to our curriculum complement our traditional, elective-based CS path at the secondary level.
Q: Are you especially reaching out to groups who might not be considered traditional CS students — girls, minorities and disabled students?
A: Eliminating opportunity gaps in CS education is foundational to our entire initiative. We are targeting every student, especially girls, students of color and those with disabilities.
We have quickly scaled our work across the district because the message of equity resonates with our teachers. The mindset of CS for All is infectious, and the results are inspiring.
One example of this is the LEGO WeDo robotics program, a free after-school opportunity for all K-5 students. Our teachers run these after-school clubs, and they do an amazing job of recruiting students who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM. The Bellevue Schools Foundation covers the expense of the robots and a portion of the activity pay that teachers receive.
Another wonderful example are the Braille coding blocks developed by my colleague Sarah Brewer. She designed and 3-D printed these blocks for a student who otherwise couldn’t engage in the coding work with her peers.
That is what we mean by CS for All.