Three SNU Education majors, Haley Ryckman, Macy Smart, and Katelynn Thompson, set out to share an exciting and fun learning experience for elementary students through a web-based, computer programming curriculum, CS-First. This program falls under the umbrella of STEM, which stands for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics.
CS-First is an entry-level computer science program designed and supported by Google; therefore, the program has no costs towards schools. The curriculum is designed to expose students in grades 4-8 to some basic concepts of computer programming and to learn problem-solving skills . Additionally, it gives students the opportunity to practice discipline and creativity.
CS-First is integrated with another web-based program called “Scratch,” a program designed to allow the students to create stories, music, games and much more by dragging and dropping code blocks. Mitchel Resnick (of the MIT Media lab) created Scratch to function similar to Legos. In Scratch, students stack code blocks instead of learning all of the syntax of a language. Scratch is free and includes an online community, which fosters a collaborative culture of remixing and mashups.
During the first part of the semester, these future teachers worked in CS-First and Creative Computing, another Scratch-based curriculum, to become proficient in the basics of the Scratch language. Just after spring break, they set out to three nearby schools to host their clubs—one with sixth graders, one with fourth graders, and the other hosting a club for second and third graders. The schools only needed to provide a computer for each student.
Haley Ryckman has been the host of a CS-First Club at SNU’s School For Children. For the past six weeks she has been teaching the CS-First curriculum to a group of 6th graders. The club takes place during the regular school day for 90 minutes on Friday afternoons.
The response from the School for Children participants has been very positive. When asked about the students’ attitudes toward the program, Ryckman responded, “The students come into class every time talking a million miles a minute, asking questions about what they were going to learn that day, and telling me what they saw on Scratch over the weekend, and what all they created from the prior class period to now.”
Katelynn Thompson is hosting a CS-first Club as a part of the Shedeck Elementary afterschool program, which is part of Yukon Public Schools. Twelve 2nd and 3rd graders have worked through about 75% of the curriculum, which is embedded within the existing activities of the afterschool program.
The fact that Shedeck Elementary students are younger than those participating in the other two clubs has done nothing to inhibit their excitement about learning. They are extremely eager to work on their projects at school, as well as at home.
“I work with these students on a daily basis through the afterschool program, but I have never seen them this excited about participating in an activity. It gives them something to look forward to,” said Thompson.
Macy Smart hosts a CS-First Club at Earl Harris Elementary, in Bethany Public Schools. Smart’s experience is much different than her fellow teacher candidates, as she has 26 fourth graders (26 fourth graders!). The original plan was to cap the club at 15 students, but since the response from the 4th graders was so overwhelming, the decision was made to include all applicants.
Bethany Public Schools requires a sponsor for afterschool programs, and Kiley Donley, a 4th grade teacher, jumped at the chance to fill that role. When asked about the experience, she said, “CS-First has impacted the students’ excitement and confidence in the classroom. They have gained knowledge about working with computers and new programs. More importantly, they have benefited from the experience by becoming more comfortable with critical thinking skills and trying new things.”
Professor Jody Bowie, who offered some assistance in setting up the clubs, plans to continue this outreach to local elementary schools. His goal is to expand the opportunities for elementary students to become more successful in math and science through the practice of computational thinking and problem-solving skills.
A coding-to-learn program such as CS-First provides SNU teacher candidates several hours of valuable clinical experience in a classroom, while also giving elementary students a chance to learn concepts which are applicable in both math and science, not to mention language arts and the creative arts. The program and the teacher candidates are making a difference in many of the lives of these children.
Article by Haley Ryckman, Macy Smart, & Katelynn Thompson