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With CS4NH, state pushes computer science education

  • First-graders Spencer Clemans (left) and Edie Soares at Christa McAuliffe School use the free mobile application Scratch, a project of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab, to animate a scenario about teacher Missy Noyes’s two cats – Lincoln and Quinsy. Lola Duffort /Monitor staff

  • Information technology and computer engineering teacher Lisa Marcou (right) offers a coding tip to juniors Hope Neveux (left) and Katie Henry as they begin using a Python software to control a robot during a class at Concord High School on Friday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Students test changes in their Python code as they try to use the programming language to move their robot during a computer programming class held at Concord High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Junior Katie Henry traces wires back to their corresponding motors on a robot during a computer programming class held at Concord High School on Friday, Dec. 16, 2016. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)



Monitor staff
Sunday, December 18, 2016

On a Thursday morning at the Christa McAuliffe elementary school in Concord, technology integrationist Heather Drolet is in Becky Taylor’s fifth-grade class, showing students how to use a computer simulation to model the spread of disease.

She tells students to experiment with an app on their iPads – each student has a tablet – and see how they can adjust the parameters in the simulation to achieve different results.

In one corner of the room, Kayla Bengtson gets to work. She wants the simulation’s screen to go black – meaning there are no infections, “because then nobody’s sick,” she explains.

Next to her, Anna Makee jumps in.

“Kayla – I solved your problem,” she said, showing her friend a black screen, having lowered the initial rate of infections to zero.

At the end of the unit, the hope is that students will be able to use the application Tynker to build their own simulations. By the time they’re done with their schooling in the district, the hope is that if they want to, they’ll be able to build the mobile app itself – and more.

“What makes a good K-12 computer science program is that students have exposure year by year,” said Department of Education STEM education director David Benedetto.

At the Concord School District, educators are working to put such a program together. And with CS4NH, a statewide advocacy campaign in partnership with the University of New Hampshire, the state is hoping to help districts like Concord grow their programs – and later adopters get theirs off the ground.

The New Hampshire Department of Education is cognizant of the finite resources school districts have, where computer science initiatives have to compete with things like personnel costs, infrastructure upkeep, or expanding to full-day kindergarten, Benedetto said.

“We don’t want to create unrealistic or unfunded mandates for schools,” he said. Instead, the state will try to help those districts that do want to teach computer science – and increasingly many do – build capacity.

“This is not something that is unattainable. It’s not something completely new that you have to blow up everything to get there,” Benedetto said.

And to help districts get to where they need to be to offer computer science, it’s working on one of the biggest difficulties facing computer science education – recruiting and training teachers. Because if there are too few qualified computer scientists to meet the demands of the private sector, there are even fewer willing to teach.

The department is working on rolling out an online professional development course – likely with some in-person support – to let, for example, a math teacher get a computer science endorsement on their teaching license. They hope it will be ready in this spring, so that teachers can start taking it over the summer, Benedetto said.

It will also connect districts with existing resources, like the UNH’s STEM Discovery Lab, which offers professional development opportunities for teachers looking to incorporate computer science into their curricula. And it’s working on developing academic standards for a computer science curriculum.

In addition to an investment in one-to-one computing, the Concord School District hired a tech integrationist to work at the elementary, middle and high school level. At the high school, students can now enroll in two computer science classes or take advantage of the Concord Regional Technical Center’s more intensive programming and engineering courses.

Justin Bourque, the tech integrationist at Concord High, has even started a student help desk, where students can fix broken laptops, organize maker-spaces, and even create online tutorials for teachers – all for credit. One of the help desk students even travels to the McAuliffe school and mentors students in Drolet’s all-girl coding club.

The tech integrationists across the district are working increasingly hand-in-hand to build pathways between the schools, Bourque said.

“We want a stronger and stronger link so that we don’t point to a single classroom and say ‘there was that time you tried computer programming,’ ” Bourque said.

Especially in the early grades, the strategy is essentially to “trick” students into familiarizing themselves with computer science concepts and thinking, Drolet said. For example, in third grade, students will be introduced to algorithms – step-by-step operations that perform automated calculations or tasks – in the form of turtles they’ll program to build walls in the game Minecraft.

A lot of computer science at the elementary level doesn’t even need to use digital technologies, Drolet said, who often asks her students to put their tablets away in favor of a hands-on, collaborative activities from the University of Canterbury’s free online curriculum CSunplugged.org.

Ultimately, it’s about building linear, logical reasoning; understanding if-then statements; and fostering the ability to trouble-shoot to solve problems, she said.

“Just getting them to be critical thinkers and collaborators is our main goal. And computer science helps us get there,” she said.

Bourque, who also teaches history, agrees. And it’s something that proponents of computer science education often say – that while computer science skills will be useful for students once they graduate into the world, that’s not because everyone will grow up to be a computer programmer. Computer science, they say, is just a great project-based way to learn.

“The way someone breaks down a research project – there’s a lot of the same synapses firing,” Bourque said.

(Lola Duffort can be reached at 369-3321 or lduffort@cmonitor.com.)