As a new subject, the computer science curriculum poses unique challenges for teachers. In addition to learning new subject knowledge, they must master pedagogies for teaching a new topic.
Several strategies have been proposed to increase student interest in CS and encourage them to pursue careers. These include encouraging students and using unplugged-type activities that leverage constructivist principles.
1. Make It Personal
With their high-tech classrooms and specialized teachers, many elementary schools are well-positioned to bring computer science classes to their students. But there are several key issues to overcome. For one, teachers need a computer science curriculum that is both engaging and rigorous. Educators also need access to basic professional learning that introduces them to the discipline and helps them develop the skills needed to lead a computer science curriculum.
In addition, it’s important to ensure that students can access the technology and resources they will need to participate in the class. This includes input devices such as Lenovo Chromebooks, Microsoft Surface tablets, or smartphones. It also requires robust internet connectivity, as well as wireless network access. Finally, ensuring students can access various instructional materials, including coding games and activities, is crucial.
Fortunately, there are a growing number of options available. Most of these curriculums are built to engage young learners while still challenging them with critical thinking and computational skills. Many are based on hands-on, creative projects that connect abstract concepts and the real world. They also feature learning progressions to build student confidence and support teacher growth and retention.
It’s also important to remember that teaching computer science constantly evolves, with new languages and applications constantly popping up. Focus on building problem-solving skills, digital literacy, and versatile abilities for their careers, regardless of their chosen field or the likely obsolescence of specific programming languages by high school graduation.
2. Make It Relevant
The goal is to engage students and create a desire to learn computer science rather than force them to take it because of a mandate or because they have a parent who wants them to. The key is to make the subject relatable to students’ lives. For example, a new program, CodeScty, uses hip-hop to help students develop core computational thinking and coding competencies while using music that appeals to their taste.
An alternative method is a “living classroom” approach, integrating coding into daily school activities, typically through robotics. This hands-on approach engages students in real-world projects tackling school and community issues, fostering a sense of ownership and community while enabling teachers to provide valuable feedback.
For instance, at one school, students programmed a soccer-playing robot on makeshift hallway “fields” using painter’s tape and shower curtains. This engaging activity allowed them to explore computer science principles joyfully.
Advocates also stress that introducing CS in elementary grades can cultivate interest in the subject early. Research shows that students who express interest in STEM subjects in elementary school are likelier to continue their interest in middle and high school when many schools drop CS classes.
Some curricula go even further by integrating CS into other subjects. Bootstrap designs curricular modules that align CS with algebra, history and social studies, business, and physics lessons, while Project GUTS helps students create scientific models online. Developing these cross-curricular connections can help to make CS more relatable to all learners.
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3. Decode the Code
A key challenge in implementing the computer science master plan is building participation and engagement. This includes ensuring that all teachers committed to integrating computer science into their classrooms have high-quality professional learning opportunities. This is especially important for elementary school teachers, the most critical audience to reach.
One of the most effective approaches is demystifying computer science by introducing its core principles in kindergarten and elementary grades. Research has shown that students exposed to CS early on develop positive attitudes toward STEM subjects in general, including computing (Lambert & Guiffre, 2009).
Teaching coding in elementary schools also helps children learn how to think computationally. Coding isn’t about writing lines of code; it’s about understanding the problem, breaking it down into its constituent parts, and then solving those individual issues – a skill incredibly helpful in scientific pursuits (think hypothesis testing) and mathematical endeavors (think problem-solving).
For example, when kids program BlueBots, they have to think about how to give them directions to move and navigate their way around an environment. Children use their pattern and sequencing skills to make the robots follow their code. They even utilize color and maps to aid their logical thinking. Some kids used map images as a mnemonic device to help them remember at which landmarks their Bot should turn or move forward.
To foster a receptive attitude towards CS, use cross-disciplinary problem-based modules that teach CS fundamentals without computers. These modules align with K-8 science, social studies, and math standards while incorporating ELA standards for research, reading, writing, and presentation.
4. Leverage Peer-to-Peer Support
CS can be challenging for students to learn, but they do not need to do it alone. Having peers to work with can make the learning experience more enjoyable for them and help students build problem-solving skills. This also allows students to express themselves in a way that is not inhibited by fear of judgment from their teacher or other adults.
Incorporating coding into other subject areas can help make it relevant to students’ everyday lives. For example, students can practice computer science curriculum fundamentals through projects in other subjects such as math, language arts, and history. This will reinforce the importance of these skills for all students and make them more appealing to young learners.
Research has shown that peer learning can be an effective strategy for increasing student engagement and understanding. One study found that students using a platform called SolveItNow performed significantly better than students who did not use the tool, even when given the same instruction. Students used the tool to ask each other questions, receive smart hints, and discuss their work with other students. This helped them decode complex code, understand their mistakes, learn from them, and build confidence in their answers.
Utah’s CS plan necessitates equitable access to quality CS curriculum for all students. This entails strategies for recruiting and retaining qualified teachers, offering professional development, and expanding CS courses. Implementing an accountability system is crucial, involving semi-annual reporting of outcomes and addressing equity concerns. Providing resources for LEAs and local leadership support is equally essential.
5. Collaborate and Share
While some students profess that they work better alone, the fact is that computer science, like engineering, is a social pursuit. Difficult problems are less intimidating with a friend, and students can learn from each other’s strengths and struggles. In addition, students with varying communication and collaboration strengths and challenges benefit from classroom strategies that are explicitly taught and modeled.
In the interviews, teachers cited various opportunities and risks associated with collaborative work. Twenty-one of the statements described the use of collaborative forms of learning. Most of these collaborative tasks included students working in pairs or groups to solve a problem or answer a multiple-choice quiz.
In the EiE grade 4 module “Invasive Species,” students act as ecology experts to address the real-world problem of the Burmese python in Florida’s ecosystem. Working in pairs, they investigate and develop solutions, presenting their findings to the class. This assignment checks understanding, reinforces concepts, and provides valuable skill practice.
To enhance student success, utilize collaborative strategies like flexible seating, support groups, anchor charts, and individual accountability. Monitor progress and address barriers to collaboration promptly, especially for students with diverse communication and collaboration needs.