Teaching Tuesday: What Does Computer Science as a Core-Curriculum Class Look Like in 4th - 8th Grades?
Teaching Tuesdays are back!
I can’t believe that it’s been seven years since our last check in. So much has happened in the six-and-a-half years since we opened our doors, both in the building and in the world. During this time, we grew our school from serving four grades (4th-7th) to serving nine grades (4th-12th), we were accredited and earned a STEM certification from Cognia, we graduated our first class last June, and tripled the student body. We have had an opportunity to work with inspiring people, serve great children, and partner with amazing families. Now that we graduated our first class, it is time to reflect and what better time than the new year (after digging out from last week’s snow)?
School is about learning and as adults in the school, I feel that I have learned as much as, if not more, than the kids. When I think back to my high-school years at TJ or my middle-school years at Lanier, I have a different appreciation for my teachers and administrators.
A parent from our community best put it recently when we were talking - we “live and breathe STEM.” And to me, Computer Science is the T in STEM. I start with CS, because along with Engineering, our dedication to both CS and Engineering (which I’ll cover in a future post) is integral to the fabric of our school. All of our 4th to 8th grade students takes Computer Science as a core class, receiving three hours of class time per week for five years, and our high-school students continue their study of Computer Science in high-school. We’re thankful for our amazing computer science teacher, Ms. Emily, who with Mr. Ryan has worked hard to continue to improve and evolve our curriculum.
So, what does this actually look like in practice? The short answer - Fun! Our children are technology natives, and this is a class that generally makes sense to kids that they enjoy. For the long answer - read on.
In 4th and 5th grades, we use block-based programming languages, so that the focus is on the logic, and not on the syntax. We have found that different kids like both working in the digital world, as well as in the physical world, so we integrate both into our courses by covering units in programming and developing where the output is on the screen, working on a unit in robotics, as well as working on a physical computing project. Our units include Computing Systems and Computer Literacy, Foundations of Computational Thinking, Introduction to Programming in Scratch, Robotics, and Physical Computing with Scratch.
In 6th grade, we begin the year with foundations of computer science where we learn about the history of computing and explore how computing has impacted other fields of study. We are introduced to Python and work with physical computing, such as Micro:bit or Raspberry Pi. This year we are applying what we’re learning to create an invention using their Micro:bits for their physical computing project. Finally, we’ll be revisiting Robotics with MicroPython this time. In 6th grade is where we are introduced to the field of data science.
Seventh grade is a fun year, where we go deeper on what we have learned in 4th - 6th grades. We continue to develop our computational thinking, and continue to explore impacts of computing, in addition to careers in the field of computer science. We explore networking, cybersecurity, and the internet in more detail, then return to applying our computation thinking skills while learning how to apply fundamental programming skills in Python. We go deeper into applications with Python with an introduction to Machine Learning. Finally, we spend the last third of the year first in software development using Agile Software Development practices to develop an app that addresses an education need, then ending the year with developing a game after introducing the PyGame library.
To round out our lower school curriculum, in 8th grade we continue to practice computational thinking, while considering cybersecurity. At this point, we introduce data structures and object-oriented programming, and then apply what we learned to store and analyze large data sets and create visualizations of the data. Finally, we end the year by building our own voice-driven assistant.
Everything I just wrote about is our core curriculum that all of our lower school students take. For kids who love to work with tech, we also have electives that meet weekly for 85 minutes that include Game Development with Roblox Studio, Computational Thinking w/ Minecraft, Introduction to Unity for Game Development, which are this year’s Lower School electives. And if that’s still not enough, we can’t forget our clubs, which this year include the System Administration club where they are building a server, and a Game Development club that will be kicking off in a couple of weeks where students will tinker with the Unreal Engine.
Students who complete our five years of computer science are ready for high-school, where many of our high-school students take AP Computer Science Principles and AP Computer Science A in their 9th and 10th grades, and study MATLAB as an elective.
How do I measure success? It can be in the traditional sense of seeing what our students can accomplish when they go to other settings in summer programs and the glowing feedback they receive. However, I want to see them applying what they learn at school. An example is from this year when we opened our school store. One of the school store team members decided to create an inventory and check out system for the store. It was implemented with the opening of the school store, and they’re now working on the second iteration which will incorporate student IDs with a credit balance at the store. This is what happens when education comes together with curiosity, initiative, and teamwork.
Come back next Tuesday and read about Artificial Intelligence at Ideaventions Academy, the subject of our next post, and what Computer Science looks like in 11th and 12th grades.
P.S., If you want to read what I wrote about in 2015, check out Computer Science for All. Looking back and rereading this, I’m so proud that we have accomplished what we set out to do!
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