School systems across El Paso County are using robotics to introduce the basics of computer science as early as the elementary grades.
At least five systems in the county are engaged with or are exploring the concept, said Tina Granato, director of computer science education at mindSpark Learning, a nonprofit that is helping train teachers to integrate computer science principles into their subject matter.
mindSpark is the Colorado regional partner with Code.org, an organization that developed a free K-12 curriculum to provide students with the technical knowledge they will need when they enter the workforce.
“What we have seen is that if you introduce computer science at a young age, especially with girls and minorities, they feel like they are confident about it and … they have a great interest in it as well,” Granato said. “Trying to introduce computer science in middle school, you don’t get interest traditionally from girls or minorities. So we’ve already seen huge success with starting it at an elementary level and exposing them to it at a young age.”
The curriculum was informed by consultations with industry partners about their workforce needs.
“Computer science is about collaboration, critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity,” Granato said. “So it’s encapsulating all of those skills and teaching them early on, also with programming and coding, so that students see the bigger picture of problem-solving, which is what’s needed out in the workforce.”
Granato said mindSpark has trained more than 1,000 teachers in 346 schools and 71 districts in Colorado, reaching 122,000 students so far.
The organization has conducted teacher training workshops in Harrison School District 2, Widefield District 3, Falcon District 49 and Cheyenne Mountain District 12 and is in collaboration with Academy District 20.
The training gives teachers the tools to incorporate computer science basics into what they’re already doing, D-12 Superintendent Walt Cooper said.
“It’s not a 45-minute [computer] session every day, but a way to embed the basic principles into the existing curriculum,” Cooper said. “One of the things we know is how far-reaching the whole idea is of not just being able to use technology but being able to understand and manipulate technology, understanding the underlying code and how all that works. We already do some of this at all levels, and we teach computer science courses at Cheyenne Mountain High School, … but we don’t really have a systemic way to do this across all grades.”
District 12 was awarded funds from the state Computer Science Teacher Education Grant Program to train a core group of 24 elementary and junior high teachers through mindSpark, Cooper said.
The first wave of elementary school teachers in D-12 has completed a one-day workshop and has begun to implement the principles they learned in their classrooms, said Greg Miller, instructional technology coordinator. They will be receiving additional training this summer.
The teachers are learning how to use educational robots such as Ozobot and Sphero.
“Most elementary kids start with block coding,” Miller said.
For example, they’ll drag and drop blocks of code to instruct robots to move forward or turn, then load the instructions and run the program to see the results in action.
“The goal is to learn how these mathematical formulas, at a simple level, make something do what you want it to do,” he said.
Another application, used in art activities, is programming a Sphero, a round robot, to roll across different colors of paint on a large piece of paper to learn the color wheel and how colors change when they are blended.
Elementary students recently learned to drive a robot around a drawing of the digestive system. As the robot arrived at a particular part, it would explain that part of the digestive system.
To teach foreign languages, teachers can build a quiz where a robot is tossed to a student and speaks a word, either in the language or in English. The student translates and then throws the robot to the next student. Older students can build and test their own quizzes.
“As they get more advanced, into the sixth- to eighth-grade level, they’ll be able to use actual lines of code like you would if you are building a software program,” Miller said.
The district’s goal is to get a second wave of elementary school teachers through the initial training and to provide another class with a deeper dive to resolve issues, he said. Once completely trained, they will be able to pass their knowledge along to their peers.
Teachers have varying degrees of skill when it comes to the basics of computer science. Some are well versed, while others have had little exposure to tech foundations.
“The second day of training that we’re offering here is trying to teach them the basic fundamentals of what coding is, because that wasn’t even around for some of them, especially if they were a teaching major in college,” Miller said.
The district has formed a team composed of teachers who want to help other teachers integrate technology into their curriculum and how to use it in different ways.
“It’s basically the launching point to move a larger number of teachers forward,” Miller said. “Our goal will be to have at least 10 teachers in every elementary — close to a third of our teaching staff — by the end of our next school year.”
Granato said the Code.org curriculum contains very detailed lesson plans for teachers at each grade level that are especially helpful for teachers with less computer science experience.
“The middle- and high-school program is a one-week professional training, five days in the summer, and then four days follow-on quarterly on Saturdays throughout the rest of the school year,” Granato said. “Code.org can track the progress and tell the teacher how the students are doing.”
Granato said the skills students are learning will benefit them regardless of what career they choose or how technology evolves.
“Critical thinking, design thinking, problem-solving and collaboration will always be skills that are needed for whatever technology is there in the future for these students,” she said.