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When it comes to coding, kindergarten students are joining in on the trend

kindergarten-codingIntroducing coding to kindergarten students helps them reflect on their own learning as they develop 21st-century skills such as problem solving and creativity, experts say.

Coding has emerged as one of the most popular learning trends in recent years, and when it comes to programming, young students are proving just as capable as older students.

Studies suggest that engaging students in STEM and computer-based learning at an early age will help students retain their interest as those subjects become more challenging in high school and college, and it is this line of thinking that has prompted such early introductions to coding concepts.

Teaching coding in kindergarten helps young students learn important creativity and problem-solving skills that will position them for success as they move through school, said Amanda Strawhacker, DevTech Research Group lab manager and research scientist on the ScratchJr Project at Tufts University, during an edWeb webinar on kindergarten coding. The DevTech Research Group identifies ways technology can positively impact children’s development and learning.

(Next page: What experts and educators say about coding in early grades)

Tufts University and MIT collaborated to design ScratchJr, a free app that teaches programming concepts to K-2 students. ScratchJr differs from Scratch, Strawhacker said, in that it “makes it as simple as possible to get at the core of what you want to do.”

After piloting Scratch in classrooms and with groups of students, collaborating researchers developed a version of ScratchJr that is aligned to younger students’ developmental stages. The program tasks students with making colorful blocks jump and move, and Strawhacker said developers eliminated the possibility of syntax errors to help students focus less on how to use the tool and more on meeting coding challenges.

“Many technologies are ‘digital playpens’–they’re safe, narrow, and adult-directed,” Strawhacker said. “Digital playgrounds allow children to be creators of their digital or tangible content, rather than consumers of digital content. They let students explore what it means to make a mistake in that creation.”

The notion of making mistakes, or the popular “failure is a positive outcome” concept, is especially important for young students as they engage in coding.

“We believe that if your student or child succeeded on the first try, then your question wasn’t hard enough,” she said. “It’s not a failure, it’s just not the best opportunity for you to learn something new and be engaged.”

Students can emulate the engineering design process when they focus on their own creation challenges. That process uses the following sequence: ask, imagine, plan, create, test and improve, and share.

The process also helps to break down the idea of perfectionism.

“We love when children ‘mess up,’ because it’s an opportunity for learning,” Strawhacker said.

Teaching coding and programming concepts to kindergarten students is “a lovely way to introduce design-based learning concepts … When you teach something how to think or be or act, you really are thinking about how you yourself think or act–you’re reflecting on your learning,” she said.

Coding also touches on a handful of skills student develop as they enter school.

Communication and self-expression: Programming is a non-verbal way to represent thoughts or personality on a screen

Sequencing and order: Young students focus greatly on patterns and ordering, including learning how to create and discern patterns, telling stories, and even learning to tie their own shoes. This more mathematical or structured way of thinking lends itself nicely to coding, where students can see the immediate effects of changing a sequence or order.

Problem solving: Kindergarten students learn as much about social behavior as they do about academics, and coding helps them develop social skills when they collaborate with peers. “Problem solving is excellently addressed when we introduce programming with ScratchJr,” Strawhacker said.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that computer science and IT jobs will continue to grow into 2020, but the current and future U.S. workforce may not be prepared. Code.org statistics indicate that just 1 in 10 high schools offer computer science classes.

In an effort to build lasting enthusiasm for coding and programming, many schools and districts are bringing coding programs down to the elementary levels, first experimenting with older elementary students before expanding the coding programs to kindergarten students.

In Pittsburgh, the Kids+Creativity Network offers a number of programs to bridge the coding skills gap, such as the Remake Learning Digital Corps, a gropu of mobile mentors who focus on robotics, coding websites, and programming mobile apps; the Computer Science Student Network, which gives teachers out-of-the-box computer science tutorials and games provided by robotics and coding instructors; and Arts and Bots, a robot building program for students.

The focus on creation, whether through coding for the web, app creation, or robotics, “builds on the theory of connected learning—we meet kids where they are, engage them in a social setting, and provide them with project-based learning,” said Cathy Lewis Long, executive director of the Sprout Fund, the force behind Kids+Creativity.

“A lot of skill adoption is deep at the middle school level,” Long said. “How do you get kids turned on to coding and computer science? How do we extend that learning and how do we do it in a way that kids are prepared to understand the coding or science behind it?”

“When we think about computer science in the past, it was in high schools,” said Linda Hippert, executive director of the Allegheny Intermediate Unit (AIU), an educational service agency serving 42 school districts in Pennsylvania. AIU works with the Pittsburgh Kids+Creativity Network to introduce students to digital concepts and help them develop digital skills.

“Now, it’s beginning at a very early age, and it’s intentional. It’s going to the elementary levels. What students are doing with that, and how they respond to coding, is very exciting,” she said.

Students in the districts served by AIU are using coding programs such as Scratch to program and operate robots, said Rosanne Javorsky, AIU’s assistant executive director.

“When I really knew things were changing in our classrooms was when students as young as second grade talked about the new skills they learned and how school is different for them,” she said.

“The kids aren’t just listening to info the teachers are providing; they’re actually doing and teaching others,” Hippert said.

She estimated that coding and programming courses and opportunities are available in more than half of the schools AIU serves. Most of those schools offer it at both the high school and middle school levels, with a fair number of programs trickling down into the elementary grades.

“What we see is students engaging with tools they’re familiar with,” Hippert said. “Through the Kids+Creativity Network, initiatives such as coding and programming and the Maker Movement have grown in our schools, to the point that the enthusiasm for it is almost contagious as students learn from one another.”

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