This spring, at St. Anne’s-Belfield School in Charlottesville, Virginia, the fifth-grade Spanish class programmed computers to produce bilingual, animated photo albums. The seventh-grade science class rejiggered the code behind climate models. The first-graders programmed robots to run just for starters.
“We’d like everybody to be more comfortable with computer science, because it’s running our lives now, and because it enhances what’s possible in the classroom,” said Kim Wilkens, a technology teacher at St. Anne’s and co-coordinator of the school’s computer science initiative.
They’re not alone. Although technology has flooded America’s schools, interest in computer science courses has not kept pace, especially among girls and underrepresented minorities. While states discuss whether and how to make computer science a required course, many educators want to inject coding into all sorts of courses, from science to art to English. They’re not just out to prepare the next generation of technology workers. Their goal is far more expansive. They want to turn coding into a new kind of literacy—a fundamental applied skill, a mode of inquiry and expression—that everybody should know.
One of the biggest challenges for computer science advocates is that many kids simply don’t see why coding matters, in a world of preloaded software and with the vast resources of the Internet. While enrollment in Advanced Placement computer science, a Java coding course, has been growing rapidly, the numbers pale in comparison with most other science, technology, engineering, and math AP courses. Several years ago, plunging enrollment in computer science at the college level led the College Board to start work on a new, project-based AP “computer science principles” course, in which students will use coding to address real-world problems.* That course will officially debut in the fall of 2016.
But are stand-alone computer science courses enough? Many educators believe we should connect students with computer science in the same way that it touches our lives—everywhere.
Of course, that’s easier said than done. Overburdened teachers can’t add coding to their repertoires without a lot of help, at least initially, both inside the classroom from dedicated technology specialists such as Wilkens and outside the classroom. In the past few years, global networks of teachers from every discipline have sprung up to help each other plug programming into their classes.
Karen Brennan is a Harvard University education professor and founder of ScratchEd, an online community of teachers using Scratch, a novice-friendly computer code developed at MIT. Rather than written commands, Scratch uses digital blocks that stack together like Legos to form animation and simulation programs. Kids use the code to experiment and build projects, including characters, multimedia stories, and games. They share their creations and collaborate online.
Since ScratchEd started in 2009, it has grown to more than 15,000 worldwide members (including Kim Wilkens), who swap stories, share resources, and post questions about how to integrate code into lesson plans and student projects. Last fall, Brennan helped create a free Creative Computing curriculum guide, available online. She describes Scratch as simply another way to express learning and creativity.
“Instead of writing an essay or doing a PowerPoint presentation, for a class, you can use Scratch to create your own interactive media,” she said. Along the way, she added, students learn computational thinking—ideas such as sequencing, conditionals (if this, then that), debugging, remixing, and iterative fixing and testing of programs.
Last year, for instance, a sixth-grade science class at the Putnam Avenue Upper School in Cambridge, Massachusetts, used Scratch to program Claymation plate tectonics—re-creating the 2011 tsunami that devastated Japan, the rise of the Himalayas, and the 1904 San Francisco earthquake, among other projects.
“It’s about engaging students whatever way we can,” said Kyle Browne. She’s an artist who worked on the plate tectonics lesson with the students’ science teacher, and Ingrid Gustafson, an instructional technology specialist for the Cambridge Public Schools. “Maybe they get interested in technology by working with computers in a way they never imagined they could. Or maybe they realize, oh, science can be creative!”
Browne regularly works with science and math teachers through a grant-funded partnership she directs called Cambridge Creativity Commons. Increasingly, she has been mixing in coding, including an interactive ecosystem project that began this year. Every sixth-grade science class in the city will learn about food webs in forest ecosystems. With help from Browne and Gustafson, they’ll use Scratch to code those relationships and animate them with uploaded photos of their own flora and fauna paintings. Click on the deer and they multiply, denuding the landscape of vegetation. Click on the wolves to try to restore some balance, and so forth.
In the nearby towns of Medford and Everett, Massachusetts, middle school students in engineering and art classes are programming mobile apps, using another block-based coding language called App Inventor, created by MIT professor Hal Abelson. Like Scratch, App Inventor supports a global community of DIY coders, more than 3 million of them, and about 20 percent are in schools.
The teachers in Medford and Everett were trained in App Inventor as part of a National Science Foundation–funded project overseen by Fred Martin, a computer scientist at the University of Massachusetts–Lowell.
“There’s a slice of people who get excited about algorithms and math,” Martin said. “But a lot more people get excited about computer science when they realize that it can have a beneficial impact on the world.”
The only rule for the students is that they build an app that will help their school community. “They’re building simple games, translators, and flashcards for study skills,” said Michael Scarola, an engineering teacher at McGlynn Middle School in Medford. “One girl is trying to make a translator that will go from English to Haitian Creole. Somebody wants to make an app to help the school coaches. Another group is trying to do something on anti-racism.”
According to Brennan, the No. 1 fear teachers have when they start using Scratch is that they won’t know enough to help their students when they get stuck. Last fall, before an audience of teachers at a Harvard education conference, she gave a talk on that very topic called “Getting Unstuck.”
“Students don’t need you in the way you think they need you. They don’t need you to solve every problem,” she told her audience, advising them to “embrace the vulnerability of not knowing” and the chance to model collaborative problem solving with their students.
In fact, at the Kennedy-Longfellow elementary school in Cambridge, students who mastered Scratch in an afterschool program became “Tech Leaders” in their regular classrooms, helping fellow students learn to code. As part of a partnership with nearby Lesley University, many Kennedy-Longfellow teachers now infuse computer science into their daily classroom routines. The school has an array of age-appropriate robotics kits and Raspberry Pi bare-bones computers built for programming, which kids can check out from the library and take home. They transformed their aging computer lab into a coding and robotics-maker space, which they opened in December to coincide with the global “Hour of Code” campaign organized by the nonprofit group Code.org.
“These kids are our new grassroots,” said Lesley University assistant professor Sue Cusack, who co-directs the project. “They’re the ones who are going to be staging the revolution for us.”
*Correction, April 15, 2015: This article originally misstated that falling enrollment in AP computer science led the College Board to create a new AP computer science course. AP computer science enrollment is growing, albeit at a slower pace than other science, technology, engineering, and math AP classes; the College Board decided to create its new AP class because of falling computer science enrollment at the college level.