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10-week pilot program introduces computer coding to third grade students in Newberg

For the past several weeks, George Fox University computer science student Ben Delaney found himself bouncing images from his laptop onto a projection screen as he demonstrated basic coding principles to a group of riveted Newberg students.

What few would guess, including Delaney if you’d asked him a year ago, is where in the Newberg School District he would be giving such a lesson.

The obvious answer would be Newberg High School, perhaps even to middle school students as part of the district’s new eighth period after-school program. But in fact, Delaney spent 10 Wednesday afternoons this fall at Ewing Young Elementary school in Jennifer Schneider’s third-grade classroom.

Yes, elementary school and third-grade students.Photo Credit: SETH GORDON - Early start - Student teacher Emily Conradi helps Allana Erickson (right) with a coding problem while Madeline Gallardo looks on Nov. 19 at Ewing Young Elementary School. Conradi was part of a 10-week GFU pilot program to teach the basics of computer programming to third-grade students.

Delaney volunteered his expertise as part of a GFU pilot program at two Newberg elementary schools that wrapped up Nov. 19.

The project was the brainchild of GFU education professor Yune Tran, who found a couple of enthusiastic supporters in Mabel Rush Elementary School principal Lisa Callahan and Ewing Young principal Kevin Milner when she reached out in search of a partnership.

“It’s been wonderful,” Callahan said. “When Yune Tran brought this to us as a proposal last year, it sounded great. We were all for it. The idea the kids are getting to do hands-on science and linking it to computer coding is exactly the direction we want to go.”

Where it began

Like many great ideas, Tran’s was born at home, inspired by her two daughters.

Having a dad with a background in software engineering and an education professor for a mom, it almost seems obvious in retrospect that Tran’s two daughters would somehow be at the nexus of their parents’ careers, but Tran said it was a first for the family.

At ages 7 and 8, Tran’s daughters were passionate about school, but often got bored. They had enjoyed participating in Lego robotics, but were discouraged to be the only girls there, so their parents decided to find things at home to support them and supplement their learning.

With his background, Tran’s husband suggested putting them on a coding platform.

Tran was skeptical, especially knowing that most computer science majors don’t even begin until college, but they decided to just go for it.

While they received the tools and some guidance from dad, Tran says they mostly taught themselves.

“It quickly evolved into something that they became very passionate about,” Tran said. “I saw a different vision with what was happening with them as far as getting really excited about learning, like how to animate an apple or create objects they never thought about doing.”

Naturally, Tran thought about applying the idea to the classroom, but she was still pretty skeptical.

Then she learned from her husband that their daughters had already finished learning the first language of a college computer science 101 class and she got really excited. Because two of the key components were access to technology and some expertise, it seemed possible that it could translate really well to the classroom.

Every kid in every classroom

Having grown up as one of nine kids, Tran didn’t have access to a lot of resources and often had to figure things out on her own.

For that reason, she says she’s always had a heart for the equity behind education, so that’s what she sees first and has trained to address.

Consequently, that drive has played a large role in shaping the program.

“Thinking critically about what happens in education system and how the poor fall behind and the gap gets wider than it ever needs to be, I felt this really needed to have more equity,” Tran said. “We needed to leverage this opportunity to every single classroom.”

Doing the project as an after-school program seemed like an easy path to getting a foothold in schools, but for Tran’s goals, that wouldn’t reach enough kids, so making it a part of the school day was a must.

“When you do an after-school program, you’re still leaving some kids out who have to go home because they have familial responsibilities or sports or whatever,” Tran said. “That really doesn’t leverage it across every gender, every background, every socio-economic status.”

Bringing the curriculum into the classroom brought with it several challenges, not the least of which was providing the expertise in computer science.

Having education majors work in schools for practical experience, even before their standard student-teaching placement, was commonplace for Tran, so it wasn’t a stretch when her husband suggested that computer science majors could be brought in to teach the content.

Because creating interdisciplinary learning situations is such a big concept in education right now, it also made sense to partner the computer science students with her education students and create some collaborative opportunities for students at George Fox.

With those pooled resources, it would also take the pressure off already over-burdened classroom teachers.

“Having taught in public schools, I know there is so much expected right now of classroom teachers now than there ever was,” Tran said. “They’re just maxed out on time and resources.”

Starting small

After thinking about the project for a few semesters, Tran still didn’t know how she would get it into classrooms.

She had the bright idea, but couldn’t yet see how to make it real, so she began reaching out to people.

One of them was Deb Mumm-Hill, who came to George Fox earlier this year to serve as the director of student success at the school’s IDEA center.

Through Mumm-Hill, Tran connected with Kiki Prottsman, the executive director of Thinkersmith, a Eugene company that was doing similar things with teaching coding to younger students.

The two reached an agreement where Thinkersmith would provide the curriculum for the program and Prottsman would train participating classroom teachers.

Tran figured she needed to start small, so she reached out to the Newberg School District. As a STEM identified school, Ewing Young was the first to get on board, followed by Mabel Rush, where Tran had previously done some translating for Vietnamese students.

It also worked out well to start the program with third grade students because George Fox’s elementary education students are based on the Newberg campus. Tran also said she felt it would be a good opportunity to introduce some interdisciplinary learning for the third grade students.

“I’m not sure there is a right time or right age,” Tran said. “Third grade just provided a good transition because they’re ready enough and a lot of them are readers, literate independent readers. They already had enough mathematical understanding with some of the lessons for that age.”

Interdisciplinary, 21st century learning

For about the first half of the 10-week pilot, students didn’t even touch a computer.

Rather, they did hands-on activities to learn the basic concepts of computer science.

“The first half or so focused on algorithmic thinking rather than actual lines of code, which I think is the more valuable thing at this point,” said Delaney, who was paired with education major Emily Conradi in Schneider’s classroom. “My tendency has maybe been to move a little quickly, but they definitely have been able to catch some stuff, especially when (Schneider and Conradi) convinced me to slow down a bit.”

The students eventually began building sequences of commands in Scratch, a free coding software platform developed at M.I.T., before ramping up to the final session Nov. 19, when they coded some basic calculator functions.

Both Schneider and Mabel Rush third-grade teacher Adrea Nicol said they felt the coding lessons meshed well with other subjects their students were learning, like tying input and output to function tables in math or sequencing commands to syntax in language. They also tried to use vocabulary that would match up well with other subjects.

“We know that when kids make connections between different topics, between different subjects, it helps them remember it more,” Callahan said. “It helps make it more meaningful and relevant, especially if we tie it into their lives outside of school. That’s a big focus.”

The teachers also reported a high level of excitement about the coding lessons, which was also reflected in interviews Tran did with the students.

“I feel like I’m really learning about things and it’s kind of like engineering,” one student responded. “What I like to do is to build and take apart things. They’ve been interesting. I would want more of these classes.”

Teaching triumvirate

The three-way cooperative teaching structure of the program proved to be vital in a variety of ways for all three instructors involved, as their strengths and weaknesses balanced each other out.

While the contributions of the computer science students as experts in the content were quite clear, they relied on the education student and classroom teacher just as much.

“When they go out to the classroom, it’s something that’s not familiar for them,” Tran said. “How do you relate to students? What do you say to students? So the elementary education students are the ones who know that. It’s an added asset either way. One knows the content and one knows how to teach and relate to students or even the knowledge of classroom management.”

Having three people in the classroom to troubleshoot with students once they proceeded to working on the computer also proved to be vital.

Andy Byerley, Newberg’s teacher on special assignment (TOSA) for STEM, noted that the format also provides excellent professional development for the classroom teacher.

Byerley said it is a great example of job-embedded professional development, which is much more effective than just sending teachers to workshops or taking an online course.

“Folks like Andrea and Jen get that experience as a learner also along with their students, which is really cool,” Byerley said. “You don’t see that stuff happening in every district all the time.”

In fact, because Nicol also had a student teacher in her class this semester, she has already been able to teach many of the introductory coding lessons to the other third-grade classes at Mabel Rush.

“Those kids were really excited about it, too,” Nicol said.

All about exposure

A major aspect of Tran’s vision for the program is simply exposing students to a possible avenue of learning, especially one that has not yet filtered down completely to even the high school level, let alone elementary school.

She said that even by high school, many have already determined to a significant degree what they want to do when the grow up. As elementary school students, those thoughts are more fantasy, but become more realistic as they get older.

“When they get to college, it’s become self-selecting because they know what they want to do based on prior experiences, opportunities that have allowed them to think about their career that way,” Tran said. “It makes sense then that elementary students are the ones  you want to have those opportunities because if they’re not exposed or there aren’t really good teachers that think about encouraging them in these fields, then they won’t ever think about it as an option.”

The misconception is that the concepts are too difficult to learn, but she claims even children in elementary school pick it up faster than adults and they’re more willing to learn.

Delaney said he certainly benefited from early exposure, as his father is a computer programmer.

“Because I was exposed to it early and got to do some of it before college, I was definitely at an advantage by the time I hit college,” he said.

He said he doesn’t understand why computer science, even at its most basic, is so underrepresented at the lower levels, especially when those students are already learning other forms of math and science.

Conversely, Conradi said she felt like her exposure to potential careers was quite limited when she was that young. She could be a doctor, a teacher or a nurse, but never a computer scientist.

“So just giving them that exposure and to both boys and girls at an equal level, I think it could change the trajectory of their future orientation for a career,” Conradi said. “I was never exposed to it, so I never would have even thought about it.”

To measure whether the program can change student’s thinking about their own future, Tran administered a survey before it began and will give the same one again now that the lessons have been completed.

The future

For the pilot, the computer science students were strictly volunteers, but Tran hopes to find resources so that she can pay them as she figures out what the program might look like in the future, potentially this spring or next fall. She also hopes to increase the number of practicum hours education students qualify for.

Based on the response from students, teachers and administrators so far, the program appears to have the potential to be replicated on a much wider scale if all the right chips fall in place.

“Personally, I didn’t know what to expect,” Tran said. “I just wanted to get it into 30 students’ hands and that’s 30 that I could work with and see where it would go.”

The good news for students at Ewing Young and Mabel Rush is that both schools have robotics programs for fourth- and fifth-grade students, so those that have really taken to coding will at least have one venue to continue pursuing it next year.

Conradi will also return to Schneider’s classroom as a full-time student teacher next semester, so it’s possible her class will continue to explore the subject further.

“The kids and I are disappointed that it’s over,” Nicol said. “Now we’re trying to figure out what to do next. It was definitely a great experience.”

Byerley said he would love to work with Tran to continue the pilot program’s cohort as fourth grade students next year and realizes that is a good challenge to face.

But in the long term, he said he believes the district must also beef up similar options at all levels.

“If we say we’re about 21st century learning, this is it right here,” Byerley said. “This is the kind of stuff we need to be moving toward. It’s been a real wake-up call to us to see Yune working here in Newberg. Being in Newberg to start this whole project has given us a leg up in that regard, but there’s still that downstream, what-happens-in-a-few-years type of thing.”

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