Computer coding curriculum to start fall 2014 in elementary schools

Typical classroom instruction doesn’t generally include computer coding. But this fall, even kindergarten students will begin learning how to code.

Starting in fall 2014, Minnetonka elementary schools will roll out an updated curriculum for grades K-5 that includes opportunities for coding.

Coding is the process of using computers to condut work and teaches problem-solving, communication, and collaboration

Minnewashta Elementary Teacher and Site Innovation Coach Amanda Zampila helped organize the “Hour of Code” event at her school during Computer Science Education Week. She is excited to begin incorporating coding into everyday instruction.

“One thing in Minnetonka that’s important to us is 21st-century fluencies,” Zamilpa said. “We want this type of critical thinking to be involved in our teaching.”

Coding takes on various forms, and can even be presented to students as a game.

During Hour of Code, students at Minnewashta Elementary were given the chance to manipulate characters they recognize, such as Angry Birds, to understand the principals of coding without being intimidated.

“The goal was to make it an easy, engaging and fun experience,” Zamilpa said.

Students learning how to code is just as important to parents as it is to teachers.

Matthew Tift is on the Tonka Code Design Team, a collaboration of teachers and parents who are working toward implementing coding curriculum by fall.

Tift is a programmer by trade and also has two daughters at Minnewashta Elementary who participated in Hour of Code. He supports the district’s efforts to keep making innovative improvements such as this.

“Learning coding is very applicable to lots of jobs these days,” Tift said. “I think if you can (learn to code) when you are young and you can build on that and not always have to rely on someone else, that would be great.”

Tift was impressed with the student and parent demand for Hour of Code, and was happy to see there are varying levels of difficulty that can be presented to different grade levels in this new curriculum.

“I was really struck by how well some of the tools work and how many are out there that can teach even kindergarteners to code,” Tift said.

Taking a cue from language immersion programs offered at Minnetonka elementary schools, it has become common practice to expose children to new ideas early.

Zamilpa compared the coding curriculum to the Spanish Immersion curriculum she currently teaches, saying coding is essentially another language.

Zamilpa said the most important thing students can gain from learning how to code is learning how to problem-solve.

“The biggest thing is the problem-solving,” Zamilpa said. “We encourage students to find alternative solutions to any problem and to understand how to solve problems in multiple different ways.”

As a result of demand for more coding opportunities, many coding clubs have been formed in Minnetonka schools to help children get hands-on practice.

The Coding Club at Minnewashta Elementary originally allowed for 25 students, and due to demand accommodated an additional 25 with the help of parent volunteers.

Another is Raspberry Pi, a coding club at Minnetonka Middle School East. Students in this club worked for several weeks building and programming Raspberry Pi computers to play Pandora radio stations.

After their computers were finished, students even had the opportunity to build cases for their “Pandora’s Boxes” using a 3-D printer, MakerBot.

Seventh-grade MME student Connor Wacker participates in Raspberry Pi, and wants to be a biomechanical engineer after high school. He explained the highlights of his Raspberry Pi experience:

“My favorite thing was getting an LED light to blink on command,” Wacker said. “Also, you can go into Python and type A=1, and then type A+1 and it will give you the answer of 2.”

Phil Rader is a parent volunteer for Raspberry Pi and also serves on the Tonka Code Design Team. He recognizes the team’s desire to allow age-appropriate exposure to coding in elementary schools.

“If you’re going to have a comprehensive program in a school, starting at an early age makes sense,” Rader said. “The people involved are really looking closely for what’s easily understood by children at a young age.”

Rader said coding can be taught in math, reading and even art.

“You can write a computer code that tells a computer to draw art,” Rader said. “It can create random strokes or you could tell it to go up 10 and over 10.”

The main idea behind the K-5 coding curriculum would be to incorporate it throughout the day in as many subjects as appropriate.

While the Tonka Code Design Team is still dealing with the details of the curriculum, students may not even realize they’re learning coding until they reach the age where they will actually write a computer language.

Zamilpa stressed the innovate approach to teaching coding is intended to teach problem-solving skills first, and learning computer programming languages second.

“As we look at the job market in 20 years, there are a lot of jobs that are thinking jobs,” Zamilpa said. “Regardless of if you’re a coder or a doctor or an artist, (problem-solving) is going to be an applicable skill in many situations.”

What coding curriculum will look like is still a work in progress. What is guaranteed is that each grade level will have an appropriate level of exposure to their age.

“As parents and teachers we are all concerned with ‘screen time,’” Zamilpa said. “We want to make sure we bring it back to solving a problem so it doesn’t turn into consumption.”

It’s a common goal among supporters of the project to ensure children understand technology can be used for more than entertainment.

“We are making technology available not just to consume content, but to create content,” Rader said.

Without forgetting those on the front line, teachers, a main objective of the Tonka Code Design Team is to make sure teachers are prepared adequately for the change. To make sure everyone’s concerns are addressed, teachers make up a percentage of the design team.

Zamilpa spoke on behalf of the teachers she knows at her school who, even though they all have different levels of exposure to coding and therefore varying levels of anxiety over the new curriculum, are supportive of the advantage it will provide students.

“Some teachers say it’s not necessarily what they went to school to teach, but we all realize as educators in the 21st century that the world is changing and we have to change with it,” Zamilpa said.

Students and parents can expect coding to be a part of their everyday lives starting fall 2014 as the Minnetonka School District takes one more step into the future of education.

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