By Colby Van Alen
Getting coffee one day I ran into a Westtown graduate and she asked what I’ve been doing since school let out. Computer science work at school was my response. “What, really? In First Grade? That is great since I didn’t take a computer science class until my first year of college. These kids will have such an advantage!” I agree!
A group of Lower School teachers met this summer to better refine our computer science program. As a part of that work, we agreed that at Westtown computer science teaches students problem solving, collaboration, analytical and presentation skills, and fosters deeper thinking. Students learn these skills through device practice and programming, exploration of ethical and responsible behaviors, and problem solving opportunities across all content areas. Our computer science curriculum teaches students to consider the community, global, and ethical impacts of technology and supports Westtown’s mission to develop stewards and leaders of a better world.
Computer science begins in PreK and is taught through Fifth Grade. But how it’s taught is what makes it such a seamless addition to our curriculum. Our students are eager to learn, we all know that; bringing computer science into the classroom allows them to have exciting experiences where they are making everyday connections. It is about so much more than coding! We began with Code.org and found it to be a valuable tool for teaching vocabulary and basic coding through videos and lessons. Now we have branched out to so much more – Dash and Dot robots and a variety of classroom games Q-Ba-Maze and Cool Circuits and the list is growing. We are also teaching students to think algorithmic-ally.
Do you know the definition of an algorithm? Our first grade students will define it for you. They have discovered that almost every activity they perform is an algorithm as it’s “a series of steps to complete a given task.” When coding with Dash using Blockly they are learning the framework for future programming. Along the way, there are roadblocks that they need to navigate along with a variety of “life lessons.” Understanding compass points, for example. has always been a bit difficult for our youngest learner but this year when programming Dash to move around the world rug between North and South America the students made the connection and followed up with taking action – “T. Colby, we need to move our rug now too as it’s not placed in the right position to face North.” And then an a-ha moment with the fact that Westtown is called Westtown for a reason. “We get it now! Westtown is West of the city of Philadelphia.”
Persistence is another key vocabulary word introduced this year and it’s one that I believe we always expect from students yet we don’t always name it such so that when an activity is complete the student knows they were persistent. Not all of our work with coding, algorithms and computational thinking even includes a computer. One task requiring persistence and algorithmic thinking was to design and build a structure, using 30 toothpicks and 30 spice drops, that was strong enough to hold a heavy book. Building a structure out of set materials with no given directions was a bit overwhelming at first and not unlike writing code. After much experimentation and failure, enthusiastic shouts could be heard as students figured out the steps necessary to complete the task. Success occurred! Persistence paid off!
And why are we teaching computer science as young as PreK? We have a responsibility to prepare our students with the necessary level of knowledge, skills, and experience to compete in a technologically advanced, globally competitive marketplace. Through computer science, we develop the confidence, persistence, and tolerance for ambiguity necessary to approach problems in a technologically sophisticated world.