“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.”
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.”
“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.”
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.”
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.
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.”