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Computer science isn’t required in Colorado schools. But enough people think it should be that the state is training teachers for free.

Teaching Colorado kids computer science in elementary school sets them up to be critical thinkers and prepares them for a computer-forward economy

You don't need a computer to teach computer science, as Colorado School of Mines graduate student Sarah Person shares in her sorting. demonstration. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)
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Which is heavier — a parrot or a barrel full of rum? How about a pirate flag, or a compass or a pirate’s spyglass? Now, sort it all out by thinking like a computer.

That was the query asked of five elementary school teachers holding up cards of pirate-themed images and posing as third and fourth graders. One by one, each teacher was sorted and ordered by an audience of other teachers taking the day-long crash course on how to teach computer science — without a computer.

“Computers aren’t quite that smart so we have to compare one item at a time to see which is heavier and which is lighter,” instructed Sarah Person, a Colorado School of Mines graduate student teaching the teachers computational thinking and how to sort faster by minimizing the number of comparisons. “Which is why we have to come up with these algorithms.”

n(n-1)/2 = Minimum number of comparisons

Now, don’t let this scare you. Computational thinking is really just about solving problems efficiently. And computer science is telling a computer how to do it. In teaming up with the School of Mines, the Colorado Department of Education is tapping local resources to more efficiently encourage critical and computational thinking in elementary school students and build a strong base of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) knowledge.

The taxpayer-funded workshop, among numerous sessions planned statewide this year, hopes to train one teacher from every Colorado elementary school in some computer science and computational thinking curriculum.

If you know a teacher who’s interested, nudge them to get their district to apply right now because the deadline is Thursday. (Here’s the link to apply)

John Galbavy and Sarah Person, both Colorado School of Mines graduate students, teach elementary school teachers computational thinking and how to sort faster by minimizing the number of comparisons. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun).

“There are many reasons we chose Computer Science Unplugged. It’s fun. It gets the students out of their seats,” said Tracy Camp, the Mines computer science professor who helped develop the teacher-training curriculum. “And it’s partly because you don’t have to have a computer. Poor districts that don’t have the technology available to them, they can still teach these computational-thinking exercises to their students.”

Getting students to physically participate in learning is a no brainer, teachers attending the session said. They agreed that the activities — from cryptology to computer vision — have the potential to get kids interested. And, it seems, who wouldn’t want elementary school students to think critically earlier in life so they will be better prepared for a world where nearly every facet involves computers?

“We need to teach kids how to do computer science because after a certain point, they’re going to use computer science to learn,” said Kelsey Shearer, a workshop attendee and the digital teacher and librarian at Ryan Elementary School in Jefferson County. “It’s kind of the same reason we teach reading. Our approach is we teach kids to learn to read because after a certain point, they have to read to learn. We should be looking at computer science as a literacy because in a way, it’s a language.”

Training the future

Camp first heard about Computer Science Unplugged during her 2006 sabbatical as a Fulbright Scholar at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her office happened to be next to the office of Tim Bell, the computer scientist who created the Unplugged curriculum of fun activities to get kids to learn about computer science.

“I thought man, this is really cool stuff,” said Camp, head of Mines’ Computer Science Department. “It was used all over the world and translated into 16 different languages. But the question was: does it really work in the sense of encouraging students to want to learn more about computer science?”

Tracy Camp, a professor and head of the Computer Science Department at the Colorado School of Mines, helped bring the Computer Science Unplugged curriculum to Colorado. She and her team of graduate students developed additional activities to encourage kids to learn about computational thinking. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

She went on to research whether something fun can actually teach kids computer science and motivate them to learn more. She worked with Bell on a research project and wound up developing new Unplugged activities. Revisions were made until students were showing they understood the concept 80 to 100 percent of the time.

Click the image to read Tracy Camp’s research.

“Some of these activities are being included in our workshop. Some are ones we’ve drawn from New Zealand and mapped to (Computer Science Teachers Association) standards and computational thinking pillars,” Camp said. “And then (we show) … how they map to the standards because teachers are always trying to meet standards of their districts.”

Computer courses, like coding, have proliferated in schools around the nation, coinciding with the tech industry’s insatiable demand for workers. But it’s apparently not enough. According to a survey by Gallup Inc. and Google, 84 percent of parents and 71 percent of teachers felt that offering computer science in school “is more important than or just as important as required courses like math, science, history and English.”

But only 35 percent of public high schools offer some sort of computer science course, according to a nonprofit organization Code.org. Colorado’s Department of Education leaves curriculum up to local districts so it doesn’t track how many schools offer computer science classes. To make computer science a requirement would require legislation or an edict by the department.

At least more Colorado high schoolers are getting exposed to computer science. According to the College Board, which handles Advanced Placement testing, nearly twice as many students in Colorado — or 1,128 — took the AP Computer Science Principles exam in 2018 compared to the prior year. Nationwide, 3,700 schools offered the course last year, with 72,187 students taking the exam.

Code.org, a nonprofit that pushes for computer science in schools and organizes the annual Hour of Code, rates every state based on nine policies. Those include whether a state has a computer science plan for K-12 grades; provides funding for teacher training and requires schools to offer computer science; or at least let it count toward high school graduation requirements. Colorado has achieved four of the nine.

“Colorado is the middle of the pack or further behind than most states in the West,” said Alexis Harrigan, Code.org’s Colorado-based director of state government affairs. “These are key policies to make computer science foundational. It shouldn’t be treated as an elective but as a course, just like biology. You need to understand how computers work because we interact with computers every day.”

Harrigan said she is working with Gov. Jared Polis, policymakers and the state board of education to create computer science plans for every grade in the state. And Code.org has a handy link for each state allowing advocates to easily send a letter to the governor, senators and representatives.

“The way we look at it is all future jobs are technology jobs. It’s no longer that you need this to work in Silicon Valley or a tech company but every single industry requires their workforce to have a basic understanding of computers and computational thinking,” she said. “Our founder used to say that unless you’re flipping burgers or driving trucks, you need to know how computers work. But even today, we have robots flipping burgers and autonomous trucks, and those use computers.”

At a special workshop on teaching computer science to elementary school students, Kelsey Shearer (middle), a digital teacher librarian at Ryan Elementary School in Jefferson County, brought her computer. But she didn’t need it. The lessons were based on the Computer Science Unplugged curriculum, which included an activity on decoding ciphers, as Shearer discusses with Tammy Walter (right), a fourth-grade teacher at Sandburg Elementary in the Littleton school district, and Cally Hester (left), who teaches fourth grade at Peabody Elementary in Centennial. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

Colorado does get kudos for training its teachers. In 2017, the General Assembly appropriated $500,000 for the Colorado Department of Education to help fund professional teacher development in computer science as part of Senate Bill 296. The amount was doubled last year to $1 million and the agency wanted to use a portion to better target teachers in more rural communities who couldn’t get to the Front Range during the week for training.

About $440,000 is set aside for districts to choose an approved computer science training program or use the Mines’ workshop. Teachers can attend for free and be paid a stipend up to $250.

“We’d been hearing that it’s hard for our rural districts to get to the Front Range for training so we engaged the School of Mines to go to Limon, or Lamar or Steamboat Springs instead of just having training in the Front Range,” said Joanna Bruno, the education department’s STEM coordinator. “… But knowing this is for elementary schools and that not all districts have broadband access or have computers on a one-to-one basis or even for teachers, the board wanted to make sure professional development was accessible to as many teachers as possible.”

While there are state standards for high school computer science courses, it’s voluntary in Colorado. Camp is hoping that changes and computer science becomes part of every school’s curriculum.

“Students need to learn how to read, they need to learn how to write and they need to learn how to code,” Camp said. “That’s my thinking.”

For more information about the Colorado School of Mines’ program program for elementary school teachers, visit cstart.mines.edu/FAST

Teachers who participated in the Computer Science Unplugged workshop created by Colorado School of Mines faculty and students went home with their own debugger helper. (Tamara Chuang, The Colorado Sun)

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