FETC presenter: Set ‘objectives’ when developing computer science curriculum

A Nebraska district commissioned a teacher-led committee to develop a K-5 computer science curriculum, but first established objectives to guide the process, according to a presenter at the National Future of Education Technology Conference.

Nebraska did not have a state plan or publicly available standards for K-12 computer science to articulate the goals and strategies for carrying out those goals, which led Kent Steen, a curriculum specialist for Lincoln (Neb.) Public Schools, to convene a team of educators to create an elementary computer science curriculum.

“I hand-selected some of our very best teachers to become part of this committee, and we made this a secret project,” in order to give them a “safe” space to experiment and innovate with the curriculum, and to, as he put it, view and “refresh” the current K-5 technology objectives.

This core team, Steen explained, had several objectives:

  1. Their first objective was to review and refresh K-1 LPS technology objectives, to review the International Society for Technology Education and Computer Science Teachers Association standards for teaching and learning computer science, and to blend those with the current LPS objectives as appropriate, he explained.
  2. The second objective was to begin unit lesson development aligned with the LPS instructional framework. The team was also tasked with identifying and/or creating computer science resources, software, and to identify essential learnings — to define “must-do” and “may do” depending on rotation models, explained Jason Rushing, a computer science teacher.
  3. Objective 3, Steen added, was to revise rubrics and assessments and to develop and executive a plan for professional development for what would initially become an elementary-level computer science “specials” class for 15-16 elementary schools.

The committee developed learning progressions, proficiency descriptors, lessons, and rubrics to provide a “clear pathway” for a guaranteed and viable computer science curriculum, Steen said.

“One of the things that kind of moved us along, as well, was a 1:1 Chromebook initiative, which shifted the instructional technology needs to the classroom,” Steen noted. “If a child is going to be learning about math, the time to be doing instructional technology is during that math class, not as a separate weird event in the computer lab a week later. It sounds goofy, but that’s kind of how it was.”

The effort, Steen said, picked up momentum, and what was once considered “technology time” was repurposed to add “value,” and to embed instructional technology across the curriculum. They divided the standards into three categories: computational thinking, digital literacy, and creative computing, he added.

Guiding principles

They also established four guiding principles, adapted from Mitchel Resnick and David Siegal, who co-founded the Scratch Foundation to promote computer programming literacy, Steen said:

  1. Projects: Provide children with opportunities to work on meaningful projects, not just puzzle-solving activities, so they experience the process of turning an initial idea into a creation that can be shared with others.
  2. Peers: Encourage collaboration and sharing, and help children learn to build on the work of others. Coding shouldn’t be a solitary activity.
  3. Passion: Allow children to work on projects connected to their interests. They’ll work longer and harder – and learn more in the process.
  4. Play: Encourage children to experiment playfully — try new things, take risks, test the boundaries, learn from failures.

“We wanted to simplify and focus in on what it is we really wanted to do as our computer science curriculum,” Steen explained. “And we also wanted to bravery and challenge — bravery not only for the teachers who are being pushed to their limit, to some extent, but for the students. We want them to have that sense of excitement and passion at the elementary school level [to] build their excitement through middle and high school, especially for young women and minorities.”

Getting started

Steen advised educators to take the plunge when adding coding to the curriculum and in spite of a shortage of subject matter experts and computer science instructors on staff.

“You can’t wait until you have all the answers before you get started,” Steen told attendees. “I still don’t have all the answers, but we continue to learn and borrow from other school districts and teachers. You’ve just got to get going with it.”

Their top resource for getting started, he said, came from Code.org as well as Project Lead the Way. Computer science classes also integrated and routinely use Scratch, Touch Develop, Typing Agent, Penjee, Codio, BitsBox, and Google Drive.

Elementary students learn beginning languages like Blockly and Scratch so they can focus on learning the logic of programming more than the exact syntax required by text-based languages.

Students learn how to write programs that involve loops, variables, functions, events, and in upper elementary, students are introduced to text-based environments such as BitsBox, according to the LPS website.

Steen said they apply their skills to create projects, stories, games, apps, and program robots.

Emily Ann Brown covers education technology and STEM education issues for LRP Publications.

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