Project Lead the Way has released their white paper, Our Duty to Prepare Students to Thrive: The Case for PreK-12 Computer Science Programs, and we think it is a must-read. But, if you don't have time to read it, here are the 5 take-aways we think are most important:
1. Computer Science curriculum provides invaluable knowledge and skills that are applicable to any career field (and academic content-area). Dr. Vince Bertram, PLTW's CEO, once stunned a group of my students when he shared that one of the world's largest employers in the computer science field wasn't Apple, Microsoft or Google, but, in fact, it was WalMart! This was eye-opening for those kids because they have been educated in a world where content and ideas were separated by classroom walls ---Have you heard your students when you try to calculate speed in your science classroom? "Why are we doing math in science???" The idea that computer science wasn't an isolated workforce sector was ground-breaking for them.
Of course, no matter what career field our students choose, they will use computers. But, as PLTW points out, they will also use many of the soft skills developed in the computer science classrooms. Problem-solving, collaboration, computational thinking and adjusting based on feedback are also life skills that are essential in any classroom or job.
2. Early learning opportunities in computer science will lead to a more diverse computer science workforce. It is well-known that female, Hispanic and black students are underrepresented in STEM college programs and career fields. Research shows that there are many factors that lead to this problem, including lack of accessibility, peer pressure, lack of career awareness or role models, and lack of confidence with STEM academic content. PLTW supports the idea that students who have positive experiences with STEM content will develop confidence in themselves, and will be less likely to feel like they are "bad" at a particular subject area. In the case of computer science, introducing activities that are grade level appropriate and scaffolded to allow for skill development will help students to feel more at ease with the concepts, making it less likely that they will avoid computer science as they progress in school. The impact of this for underrepresented groups would be a huge step towards closing this gap.
3. A continuum for computer science education with multiple entry points allows students opportunities to develop a deep understanding of computer science concepts and practices. Computer science curriculum should be developed like any other content area -- instruction should gradually build knowledge and skills with opportunities that allow varying degrees of application and problem-solving as students become more skilled with the content. For science educators, this Activities, Projects, Problem-Based Learning model (APB) bears a striking resemblance to the 5E model, where students build upon their existing knowledge to construct ideas.
The critical factor that makes PLTW's position so interesting is the idea of having multiple entry points for students. We do this in science by systematically selecting phenomenon that our students can connect to and access regardless of their background to engage students and drive their learning. We have experienced that many educators in technical content areas often don't consider this as they develop curriculum. However, multiple entry points increase opportunities for our students to get engaged in computer science, especially when those entry points are available as students develop confidence and interest in computer science concepts.
4. You don't have to be an expert to teach computer science, but effective professional development for teachers is a critical component in developing confidence to teach concepts in the classroom. One of the things we most appreciate about PLTW is the idea that teachers who teach in the STEM classroom don't have to start out as experts, but a teacher can become an expert in the curriculum they teach. In order to develop confidence and expertise, high quality professional development is essential, and that professional development should help teachers develop the same skills and conceptual understanding that their students will acquire. When it comes to computer science, it goes beyond just learning how to copy code or simply follow a tutorial. It should start with a clear understanding of algorithmic thinking and best practices to develop a variety of systems. If the goal is for teachers and students to address real world problems, the education should equip everyone with the tools to be creative.
5. Students need real-world experiences involving computer science in order to see their own career possibilities. At many schools in our district, our students do not know anyone who works in a STEM career field. This has a limiting impact on the dreams of our students -- as Dr. Bertram often says, "You can't be what you can't see." By giving students the opportunity to see themselves as computer scientists, career opportunities in computer science become a viable option. Often times, the careers that they are interested include a computer science aspect that they never considered. For example, we have a lot of students interested in Marine Biology and when we point out how much more efficient it is to track organisms using computers rather than people they are surprised at the innovative application of computer science.
As teaching partners in one capacity or another since 2011, Angelica and I have come to truly appreciate the value of collaboration. Building our school's STEM program with Project Lead the Way, the introduction of Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, and our district's technology initiative have kept us in a constant state of transition -- so much so that we joke about how we are so used to being in uncomfortable learning situations, we actually seek them out now! And boy, do we ever! With Angelica's work in the Science Education field, our work with PLTW and more recently, my role with the Verizon Innovative Learning Labs, we are continuously growing and developing our expertise with our course content, facilitating professional development, and understanding teacher leadership and education policy.
This year, though we are no longer at the same site, we are both teaching seventh grade science and PLTW (STEM) electives. At the beginning of the school year, we decided to use the NGSS-aligned SCALE science curriculum, developed by Stanford University, to meet the grade-level specific requirements for California. Armed with daily phone conversations and a robust shared Google Drive folder, we have been identifying misconceptions, adapting and creating resources, and scaffolding instruction where needed so our students can progress through the tasks in Unit 1.
In recent weeks, this experience has reminded us that collaboration with our professional learning network is a critical factor to our effectiveness in the classroom. Our daily conversations have led us to discoveries and "A-HA" moments that have helped us to identify gaps and misconceptions far more quickly than we would have alone. For example, a few weeks ago, we were discussing our students progress with a task that centered around tectonic plate movement and the formation of oil, coal and natural gas. Together, we realized that, despite multiple sources of data we provided our students, they just didn't recognize time as a relevant factor in earth's processes. (Not really a big surprise considering it takes them 15 minutes to take a pencil out of their backpack, right?) Now we have a plan to move forward so that our students can grasp this important concept.
We are so excited to use this curriculum, but, as with anything new, we sometimes have those "Wait, what????" moments when we are planning, and in our classrooms, we see our students having them too. With this in mind, we want to expand our collaboration to work with other teachers using the SCALE curriculum for 7th Grade. We would love to hear the nitty-gritty about how you and your students are doing --- the good, the bad and, even the ugly! We have developed some resources that we are happy to share, and we are very interested in hearing how you have approached the tasks and projects. Doing this together will make the experience so much richer, so we look forward to hearing from you!
Angelica teaches 7th grade science and Project Lead The Way computer science electives at Los Alisos Middle School in Norwalk, CA. She is a Femineer coach for a 7th and 8th grade students interested in STEM careers. In addition, Angelica also serves as part time lecturer at the California State University of Long Beach for the Science Education Department.
Kelly teaches 7th grade science and Project Lead the Way STEM electives at Hutchinson Middle School in La Mirada, CA. Kelly is a Master Teacher for PLTW's Gateway Program, and she is an instructor for Verizon's Innovative Learning Labs. In 2017, Kelly was named PLTW Gateway Teacher of the Year. Follow Kelly on Twitter @mrsklgarcia.