The days of chalkboards, projectors and whiteboards are gone. Technology has taken leaps in recent years, and in turn, has changed the way students learn. Tablets and smart boards have replaced teaching tools that now seem old-fashioned. Learning how computers work seems to be the next step. A team in the Minnetonka public school district took this idea and ran with it, creating a curriculum infused with computer science, which will be implemented in elementary schools across the district this school year.
More than a year ago, Minnewashta Elementary School principal Cindy Andress worked with teachers and parents to bring the Hour of Code, a national initiative that strives to get people excited about computer science, to her school. Parents and students showed so much enthusiasm for that one hour that the school started two coding clubs. At the same time, assistant superintendent for instruction Eric Schneider was researching the possibility of bringing a new curriculum to the district. The Tonka Code Design team, a group of parents, teachers and community members, was formed.
“Our world is so driven by technology and devices, the smartphones and the tablets,” says Schneider. “We really envision a world in which our kids need to imagine the science within in a variety of subjects (reading, writing and arithmetic) in kindergarten through fifth-grade classes throughout the district.”
Schneider explains that the curriculum will have two dimensions. The first is accessibility. “Our goal is to have that first dimension that is accessible to all students to be engaging and inviting,” he says. The second is enrichment and extension, which will allow those students seeking greater challenges in computer science to take on more projects. The team believes that teaching the subject at the elementary level is the way to go.
Many students begin using technology at a young age, when it is easy to learn. But using technology doesn’t equate to knowing how it works. Says Amanda Zamilpa, a fourth-grade Spanish-immersion teacher at Minnewashta Elementary and code team member, “Taking computer science education is revealing the magician’s tricks.”
Plus, says Andress, learning coding is like learning an additional language. The logical reasoning, critical thinking and collaboration skills that go along with the simple act of coding are essential.
Taking coding classes is also beneficial to students’ futures. Phillipa Hartley, another code team member and mother of a Minnewashta sixth-grader, joined the team because she believes that learning computer science is a building block for careers.
Lake-area elementary-schoolers aren’t the only ones making strides in the technological arena. Tika Kude, a computer science and engineering teacher at Wayzata High School, and Annelies Odermann, a former Wayzata High School student, were recognized in April 2014 at the National Center for Women in Technology’s Aspirations for Women in Computing Awards.
The organization recognized Kude, a former software engineer, for her leadership in the classroom. “It was a huge honor, but a surprise,” she says.
The awards also encourage girls in high school to pursue technology-related fields. Odermann first fell in love with computers when her grandma gave her an old one as a gift when Odermann was in sixth grade. She took several programming classes while in high school and participated in both the robotics and Business Professionals of America clubs. After being named a runner-up at NCWIT’s Minnesota Aspirations for Women in Computing awards in 2013, Odermann decided to apply again in 2014. In April, she was named a winner at the state level and a runner-up at the national level, which won her a scholarship and the chance to shadow a woman in a technology-related field.
“It makes you feel like you have accomplished something, even if you don’t have anything to show for it yet,” she says. And Odermann’s future? This fall, she will begin her freshman year at the University of Minnesota as a computer science major.
For more information on the Minnetonka school district’s new computer science curriculum, visit minnetonka.k12.mn.us.