Coding classes in Park City elementary schools see success
The program is one of the first in the country
March 28, 2017
Last school year, the Park City School District began exploring the mostly uncharted waters of teaching coding classes to elementary students.
More than a year and a half later, the district is now reaping the rewards of implementing a program almost no other school system in the country offers. Abby McNulty, director of the Park City Education Foundation, which provides the funding for the coding program, said students are flourishing in the classes, learning things like collaboration and persistence alongside computer skills that will come in handy when they enter the job market.
"It's not about just the skill of coding. It's also about what's involved in coding and how it's taught in our schools," she said. "It's really project-based learning. Kids work collaboratively, and they have to seek answers with their peers, and they're learning trial and error and perseverance. They're developing a real comfort with that, that it's just a part of the system of learning."
Tracy Fike, a technology coach and coding instructor at Parley's Park Elementary, said that growth has been encouraging to see. During one of Fike's classes Monday, students appeared eager to program an animated penguin to make it move side to side and say "Hello," and some roamed the classroom, helping others who were stuck. Fike said that kind of critical thinking and teamwork has become the norm, both in the computer lab and in other classes.
"What we're really trying to build are critical-thinking skills and skills they can convert to any area of their lives," she said. "They're working on problem solving, sequencing, things that can apply to other classrooms. The coding is kind of the avenue to do that through."
The program started last year in the district's four elementary schools with a pilot version just for first-graders. It expanded this year to include grades kindergarten through three, offering the course to hundreds of more students. That's particularly exciting, McNulty said, because teaching coding to elementary students as a regular part of the curriculum is something that's never really been done before.
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Fike said the district is, in essence, drawing the blueprint of how such a program should operate. That's made it challenging for the coding instructors tasked with things like creating the curriculum and exploring how the program could be further expanded, but seeing the success of the initiative has made it all worth it.
"That's the good and the hard part of it," she said. "We're on the forefront of it, so there isn't a lot out there for elementary coding. The teachers really have to work together to create the curriculum and find resources. The good thing is we have the support of the district."
One of the most promising elements of the program is the possibility to increase computer science opportunities for girls within the district. As a field, computer science has long been dominated by men, but school officials are hoping the coding program gets girls hooked at a young age. By the time they reach their middle school years — when girls typically diverge away from pursuing computer science — they will already have years of experience of learning it in the classroom.
"The reason why it's important to teach it so young is because it's before kids develop these biases that girls don't code, or 'Coding is not for me,'" McNulty said. "It's introduced to everybody at the same time and with the same frequency, so eventually hopefully there will be more girls interested in computer science in our district."
The district is planning to add fourth grade to the program next year, and intends to expand it into the secondary schools in the coming years, as well. McNulty said the vision at that point will be to provide students who are interested in computer science with a viable career path right after high school.
"By the time these elementary kids are in high school, they'll have the opportunity to graduate with multiple different coding languages," she said. "That's exciting because, on any given day, there's 500,000 open coding jobs in the country, and there's only 48,000 graduates every year from computer science. So it's an employable skill if kids are interested in it and want to pursue it."