Monday, December 10, 2012

Computer Science Education For All

  At a time when 'ed-tech' (education technology) is   getting so much attention, there is little time given to computer science education. Some believe that buying new hardware, and using cool apps is all that is needed.  Others consider computer literacy (using computer tools) to be a sufficient step; they believe we must leave anything more to computer scientists. This is equivalent to teaching our students to read but never asking them to write. Today, our students must learn to create technology, not just consume it. To prepare for a future where computing will be integrated into every field, our students must know how computers work. In addition, computer science teaches problem solving, critical thinking, and creativity -  digital age skills that go across all areas.

Fortunately, the Los Altos School District goes beyond computer literacy to actual computer science education. It is a unique public school district; every sixth grader learns computer programming in a required class.  The weekly CSTEM program  ( ) uses creative and collaborative projects to teach the basics of computer hardware and programming. I am that lucky teacher who gets to create the curriculum and teach this exciting program.

This week, Dec 9-15 is CS Ed week   It is a week designated to bring awareness to the need for computer science education. As my personal pledge for CS Ed Week, I want to share some of the work LASD students do in my class. I want to share what is possible in computer science education at this early age. I want to share so that other schools may learn from LASD's example and provide computer science education as a required program at an early age to all students.  

In my classes, students learn a little about computer hardware and create a 3D model of a motherboard using SketchUp  .  They love this 3D design tool and use it to create rooms and houses. Most of the school year however, is spent learning programming. This year, the sixth graders started with some programming basics using Processing.js  ( , the JavaScript implementation of the Processing programming language on the Khan Academy Computer Science platform ). These early projects show them how to create art through code. After this, they will work with a partner to create a math video game using a visual programming language like MIT's Scratch. They will learn how to design, program and create with technology. They will learn math and problem solving as they write and debug their programs. Most importantly, they will learn to use computing to showcase their creativity.

My goal is to show my students that Computer Science can be fun. I want my students to be excited about learning to code. And they are. Every class, they rush in excited to know what they will learn. 'Oh good, we are doing more programming!', said a girl at Covington last week; they are looking forward to learning more each class. They enter the classroom asking me questions like 'When will we learn Python?" "Can you show us how to make a game with gravity?" My student’s enthusiasm to learn is what keeps me energized as I go from one school to another, and one class to the next. Their enthusiasm is what lets me teach 19 classes a week, and still spend many hours outside of class tweaking and customizing the curriculum. The LASD students are quick learners and this inspires me to keep hunting for new creative tools and projects. I am also fortunate to have the wonderful support of the 6th grade teachers in this program.

I learn along with my students. I learn how to blend discovery learning methods with structured computer science lessons. After doing the same lesson multiple times, I learn to keep my demos short and interactive. Students do not want to watch demos – they just want to try it out. One of my challenges is to get students to leave the class when it is over. The 30-minute class is always too short, and many students want to stay on and try one more line of code while I am trying desperately to get them to log off. I have the next class eagerly waiting outside.

Learning does not stop when the class is over. We use Edmodo  as an online class to extend learning and I post homework and quizzes online. I get student messages and questions online after school and on weekends. Sometimes there are questions on coding and sometimes a request -   'Can you show us next time ...'  Mostly, it is excited posts of their latest programs.   

Check out my article explaining the first programming project with student samples here  Some student samples are also posted here   

While credit for the programming projects goes to our students, the credit for creating the CSTEM program goes to LAEF and the LASD administration. LASD has created an innovative learning environment by making place for computer science education in our schools. CS Ed Week may be just this week, but for the approximately 500 sixth graders at LASD, CS education is every week.

Sheena Vaidyanathan is a computer scientist, and artist and has been teaching in LASD for the last 6 years as an Art specialist, Digital Design instructor and now as the CSTEM teacher.  If you want to learn more on CSTEM, check out the latest CSTEM parent newsletter  ( )If you want to know more on why students should learn coding at an early age, read Sheena’s article on KQED's MidShift blog.
Email                  Twitter  @sheena1010


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