Building K-5 computer science curriculum out of a summer program

(Image credit: Andras Vas on Unsplash)

Faced with an Indiana mandate that required districts to offer computer science, the Metropolitan School District of Pike Township decided to expand a popular summer enrichment course into a districtwide computer science curriculum for all K-5 students. As the district’s technology integration specialist, I knew that this rapid program expansion wasn’t going to be easy. Our urban, majority-minority district has 11,000 students who speak 87 different languages. But I also knew that integrating computer science curriculum would be worth it.

Building students’ skillscontent knowledge and literacy in STEM fields is important “to meet the demands of the dynamic and evolving workforce,” the US Education Department says. I’ve seen first-hand the benefits of introducing computer science skills at a young age. I’ve watched students becoming fascinated by moving things around on a computer by themselves. And I’ve seen young girls becoming inspired to pursue careers in STEAM.

The benefits are apparent, but the road to getting there isn’t as clear. I want to share how our district turned a popular yet small summer coding program into a thriving part of the year-round curriculum for all students. And we did it without going over our budget.

Choosing the right computer science tools

The first step to introducing computer science to our students was choosing the right learning tools. Our librarians and teaching assistants began by using free resources and websites as their first foray into computer science. Soon, the staff discovered that these were not quite enough for a full-blown curriculum.

Fortunately, we found a computer science curriculum offered by Codelicious that provided step-by-step instructions for our teachers. We started using it as a supplemental resource in our summer enrichment program, and now we use it as our full-year K-5 computer science curriculum.

We also use it for lessons about being safe online and being a good digital citizen.

Kickstarting a collaboration

Expanding our computer science program to all elementary school students had to be collaborative. Our instructors have varying levels of experience teaching computer science. Thankfully, the computer science curriculum is easy to understand, allowing all instructors to teach the new course effectively. Our teaching assistants and librarians didn’t have to spend hours writing, pacing or aligning lessons with the Indiana teaching standards. The curriculum is already designed for them.

While my job is to bridge the gap between the computer science curriculum and our instructors, our teaching assistants and librarians are empowered to handle most of it on their own. The district didn’t have to hire new instructors to teach computer science. Instead, teachers, teaching assistants, librarians and I collaborated, along with the students, who are excited to learn more about computers.

Securing funding

Since we were working with a tight budget, applying for grants was necessary to expand our program. To cover software costs, we tapped a STEM acceleration grant from the state education department.

We used our pandemic recovery funding to achieve our 1: 1 tech goal for the first time. All students now have access to a Chromebook or other device, which has made it easier to launch our computer science program.

Nurturing student growth

When it comes to understanding computers and devices, it seems like children often feel more comfortable than adults. The interface is second nature to them, so many of them are thrilled to learn the secrets of how a computer works or how their favorite video game was created. By providing the curriculum, time and space for students to code, we nurture their curiosity and growth.

We have found that our students need the right tools to embrace coding. Our teaching assistants have been able to provide those resources, even while familiarizing themselves with the coursework and curriculum. Our students are developing both hard and soft skills, such as teamwork when they help out their friends or problem-solving as they experience the emotional roller coaster of debugging their first program.

Ongoing professional development

Our computer science program is not stagnant. We are constantly looking for ways to improve and foster a more positive learning environment for our students, instructors and parents.

We have hosted Parents’ University webinars and in-person workshops focused on digital citizenship, online safety for children and other topics related to computers. Professional development from Codelicious has also been a great resource to empower our teachers to feel prepared to teach computer science. For students, we hosted a Women in Technology panel discussion that introduced them to new female role models in STEM.

I recommend offering diverse resources and learning opportunities to help your district embrace the thrilling challenge of computer science.

Launching an entire computer science curriculum for K-5 isn’t easy. But by expanding a popular program through collaboration, we were able to offer our students an important new course of study that will teach them the necessary hard and soft skills they need to thrive. With strategies like clever resource organization, grants and easy-to-use learning tools, schools can set up computer science programs-all without breaking the budget.

Audrey Cope is the district technology integration specialist at Metropolitan School District of Pike Township in Indiana, which uses Codelicious to help teaching assistants, school librarians, students and parents to learn more about computer science. Cope can be reached via email.

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