piraling from Kindergarten through grade 12, WT’s computer science curriculum systematically exposes all students to the discipline in ways that foster engagement, promote mastery, and inspire the application of computer science principles in all classes—from history to science, and language arts to fine arts.

“Computer science is a form of literacy—one with which all students should feel capable and comfortable,” declares David Nassar, Computer Science Department Chair. “Our intention is that, by practicing these skills in age-appropriate ways from a young age, our students have the tools they need to tackle any problem they want to solve in an efficient and systematic way.”

Lower School: 4 Cs + Plenty of Play = 100% Computer Science

Beginning in Lower School, the foundation for computer literacy is built upon “the four Cs of 21st century learning: critical thinking, creativity, collaboration, and communication,” says Rebecca Farrand, Lower School City Campus Computer Science teacher. “When planning lessons, I think of the statistic I’ve learned that it takes approximately 400 repetitions to create a new synapse in the brain—unless it is done with play, in which case it takes between ten to 20 repetitions.”

For Kindergarteners and first graders, that means the goal is unplugged: learning computer science without screens. Instead, concepts like algorithms and sequencing, and then loops and conditional statements, are introduced through hands-on activities featuring Kibo Robots, Code and Go Mice, and Hopscotch Coding—the tactile natures of which “have students moving around the room, building with blocks, and making robots dance, all the while learning to solve problems,” says Nassar. “Removing screens from these first experiences with computer science enables students to see computer science for what it really is: an opportunity to learn to problem solve, rather than simply an opportunity to learn to program.”

Kibo, born of decades of early child development research, introduces robotics and coding through imaginative, hands-on play, says Farrand. “Students work in teams learning how to take turns and sequence the robot to complete different tasks. They learn that sequencing matters, then they build on that to learn about conditional statements. By first grade they are able to direct their robot to perform certain functions.”

Even familiar, everyday objects can instill computer science skills during unplugged lessons, shares Lower School North Campus Science teacher Brock Perkins. “Pairs of students were challenged to create a gumdrop and toothpick tower that could hold the weight of a book for more than ten seconds. The students had to work together to design and redesign their towers several times before they were successful. We’ve called upon this lesson on frustration and persistence many times when it has been particularly tricky to successfully complete an online coding challenge.”

The results are remarkable, says Kate Weber, North Campus Instructional Technology Specialist. “I’ve noticed a change in the language of our youngest students. To hear Kindergarten and first grade students talk so casually about programming, frustration, and persistence in other contexts during the school day—that’s when you know what you’re teaching is making an impact! To be literate in this kind of language is so important, not only for the sake of computer science, but also because it is so applicable to so many other areas of life. I think computer science and STEM, in general, has made it more acceptable to make mistakes and get a little messy in order to solve a problem.”

“It’s just something in which anyone can excel.”

Screens are introduced gradually in the second grade, when students learn about specific topics during unplugged activities, then apply that knowledge to a program on Chromebooks. Through the program Scratch, students use a block-based coding language to create animations. In third and fourth grades, code.org teaches additional computer science principles, and explorations in robotics take flight via Pittsburgh’s BirdBrain Technologies. BirdBrain’s Finch and Hummingbird robots mix imagination and electronics to inspire wildly creative projects where students write, tell stories, dress robots as characters, and animate favorite scenes—all while absorbing the engineering design process.

“Fifth graders review concepts they’ve learned previously—including algorithms, sequencing, loops, conditional statements, and functions—while incorporating the concept of variables,” says Farrand. “And, with this strong foundation, we introduce Codesters, a program where students begin to learn the computer science language Python.”

Computer science has become so fully integrated into the everyday at WT that it’s become almost ordinary, observes Weber—and that’s a good thing. “It’s just something that everyone learns and in which anyone can excel. It’s refreshing to work with students who don’t see computer science as something ‘special,’ because to them it is just part of their learning.”

Middle School: Create, Interact, Apply

With this full integration into the Lower School experience, students enter Middle School better prepared than ever before, observes Dave Piemme, Middle School Computer Science teacher. “I see confidence and independence in the sixth graders. They are ready—and eager—to take on new content.”

The Middle School curriculum is strategized to continue building skills, with each year emphasizing a specific aspect of computer science: Learning to Create in the sixth grade, Learning to Interact in the seventh grade, and Learning to Apply in the eighth grade.

While all sixth and seventh graders use Javascript to code for the screen, the different designations mean that each grade’s focus is unique. And by eighth grade, students are ready to tackle a new challenge: Arduino programming. “This is not the exact coding they have done the past two years, but they can apply their knowledge of coding to a new language. Arduino is also physical computing, where students build and program hardware circuits to do certain tasks,” Piemme explains.

Another Middle School option is RAPID Lab (for Research, Application, Prototype, Inquiry, Design), an interdisciplinary elective that empowers students to determine and direct their own work as they investigate scientific principles, create inventions, and design solutions to real-world problems.

Quite simply, says Piemme, “The computer science curriculum in the Middle School provides the necessary foundation for success in the Upper School.”

Upper School: Challenge, Stimulation, Inspiration—and College Preparation

In the Upper School, coursework ranges from entry- to college-level, beginning with an applied approach to computer science in courses like Computer Science for Math and Science, Computer Science for Humanities, and Computer Science for Art and Music. “With this approach,” asserts Nassar, “we are expressing to students right out of the gate that computer science is not a siloed discipline.”

Kate Sickler, a CMU-degreed chemical engineer-turned-Upper School Computer Science teacher, says this applied approach—which allows students some choice over how they design their projects—is important because it reinforces that computer science is for everyone, at any level; that there are myriad ways to learn about it; and that it is applicable everywhere.

Sickler’s engineering background rooted her in problem solving. “Breaking down a large problem into smaller steps based on a set of requirements is what I was taught to do,” she remarks. “This gives me the skills to teach students how to think logically about a problem.”

Her experience also allows her to relate personally to students new to computer science, or who may be struggling. “I was once that student who did not understand anything in my first computer science class and I wanted to quit and give up,” admits Sickler. “And yet here we are.”

For students who are passionate about the discipline for its own sake, or want to pursue it—or other STEM related disciplines—as a career, high level courses like Algorithm Design and Computer Science Innovations provide equal measures of challenge, stimulation, inspiration, and college preparation.

“Two students in our project-based course, Computer Science Innovations, are building tools with Virtual Reality (VR) technology that can benefit users in novel ways,” says Nassar. “One student is creating a multi-variable calculus tutor to enable students to visualize mathematics in a new way. Another student is developing a VR experience which can help users that must undergo painful medical procedures to utilize his product in lieu of pharmaceutical intervention.”

Never Static, Always Evolving

From its unplugged beginnings through culmination in cutting edge, college-level courses, Nassar is gratified to see computer science in play across all divisions and disciplines.

“Our department is never static. We have the ability to continually evolve how students learn and keep them excited about it. By teaching computer science to all of our students we are providing the tools to give them equal opportunities in nearly every facet of their lives.”

 

Students Inspired to Fuel Faculty Innovation

For their senior class gift, the Class of 2019 is contributing to the WTeachers Inspire Fund—a newly created fund that further enhances WT’s ability to fuel innovative ideas such as the Machine Learning class.

This gesture honors the educational legacy the class carries forward, and supports the continuation of remarkable work here at WT where, every day, students apply their learning to real-world problems. Whether developing a dispenser for lifesaving cholera medication, or creating a direct-feedback rehabilitation mat to assist physical therapy, they are vigorously supported and inspired to act on their passions by outstanding faculty, state of the art resources, their own accumulated knowledge and, now, by the WTeachers Inspire Fund.

Perhaps a student requires specialized equipment to obtain more conclusive results from an experiment, or a teacher needs training in a new facet of an existing course; the WTeachers Inspire Fund—named by students to honor the teachers who inspire them daily—can swiftly provide funds to meet those needs. Because many ideas depend on immediate action for viability, the fund can mean the difference between an imaginative idea that remains just that, or one that goes on to become a profound learning experience with potential to impact not only the WT community, but the world.