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4 reasons to start K-5 computer science and computational thinking

How one district makes computer science and computational thinking a priority for all students, regardless of background

The push for computer science education and computational thinking in K-12 schools is spreading across the nation, but many districts struggle with equity issues as they ensure economically disadvantaged students and students with special needs have access to the same resources.

Springfield (MA) Public Schools (SPS) is committed to ensuring all students in the district are able to learn computer science and computational thinking, and during a CoSN 2019 session, Paul Foster, the district’s chief information officer, outlined how SPS is taking steps to ensure equity of access for all students.

“While we’re in this movement of computer science for all, what happens to districts like Springfield?” Foster asked, noting the district’s 21.9 percent special education and 77 percent economically disadvantaged rates. “The suburbs are always out in front and they always go faster than us. If we want to broaden participation in the computer science field, it’s districts like Springfield where we have to get ahead of the curve.”

Read more: Why leveraging computer science is crucial to every classroom

SPS is in the middle of a multi-year process focusing not just on computer science education in its classrooms, but on expanding diversity in computer science and identifying the best ways to help administrators and teachers become comfortable with teaching the concepts of computer science and computational thinking.

The district decided to target computer science and computational thinking in K-5 for a number of reasons:

1. The focus is on broadening participation for ALL students.
2. Children start making decisions about what they “like” and they think they are “good at” in 4th-7th grade. Girls have already decided they aren’t good at math or they aren’t good with computers by that time. “If our goal is broadening participation and the district offers high school computer science electives, we have to get more kids, earlier, so that when they get to high school they think, ‘Computer science is totally me, that’s something I’m good at,’” Foster said.
3. Waiting until middle school or high school will perpetuate disparities in participation.
4. Pragmatically, targeting elementary school will help SPS build computer science into middle school and high school, with ALL elementary students having a background in the subject.

“Even if students aren’t going into a computer science field, they need these critical thinking, computational thinking, and problem solving skills,” Foster said.

Using an NSF Research Practice Partnership Grant, SPS partnered with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Through that partnership, the district integrates computer science into elementary classrooms while a team from the university researches the teaching process, identified what students are and aren’t learning, and gives feedback so research can inform instructional practice.

The computer science and computational thinking initiative has several objectives:

1. Hire SPS teachers to design computer science and computational thinking modules (provide them with training in computer science and in teaching computer science)
2. Build computer science modules for K-5 that can be integrated in/taught alongside other content areas by elementary homeschool teachers
3. Train all K-5 teachers on computer science and on delivering computer science modules
4. Implement modules in all K-5 classrooms

Read more: Computer science is expanding, but states have work to do

Design teams of 8 teachers per grade will create and pilot the computer science and computational thinking modules, and special education and ESOL teachers are consulted to ensure the modules meet all students’ needs.

Those design teams identify computer science and computational thinking standards to be covered in each grade level. They also identify existing curricular resources that can be adapted for the district’s use, along with creating lesson modules to cover standards alongside one or more other elementary content areas. Teachers receive professional development and the lesson modules are mapped to district unit planning and pacing guides.

Foster said SPS has learned a number of lessons at this stage into the initiative, and these lessons can guide the district in the next few years:

1. Teachers need significant training on what computer science is and how to teach it
2. Training has to include a robust orientation to available computer science and computational thinking materials and resources, so teachers know what they can draw on
3. Feedback from researchers and curriculum experts is needed early and often to ensure modules are rigorous and appropriately aligned to content area standards
4. Significant messaging to all stakeholders is necessary to build buy-in for implementation

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Laura Ascione

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