Jen Conrad’s classroom at Kingsley-Pierson Elementary School in Plymouth County has all the attributes of a normal learning space.
There are colorful books, sharp pencils and desks decorated with the names of each student.
But among the staples of the classroom, there are also robots of different sizes that swirl around the gray carpet. All controlled by fourth graders like Brylee Lewis, who can program how fast or how fast they move through a set of instructions called code.
“My favorite part is how robots can move around without a controller,” said Lewis, as she finished a coding assignment in class. “It’s just fun.”
Kingsley Pierson Elementary, which is in the small rural town of Kingsley, is one of 12 schools in Iowa that received a grant in 2019 to introduce computing in the classroom. Schools, which have 40 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, have started incorporating coding into every lesson this year.
Educators in Iowa hope these computer-focused elementary school students can help level the playing field in education. Through the “Computing is elementary” program, they hope kids of all demographics will see themselves as coders.
“We’re going to need more IT people, whether they’re programmers or designers, we’re going to need them now. The skills that we teach children, they will be able to use them and turn them into careers, ”she said.
Before Kingsley-Pierson Elementary received its $ 50,000 grant, the school district didn’t even have a computer for every student. But now teachers use binary numbers and animations called “sprites” in their daily lessons.
Technology has brought a whole new level of student engagement into the classroom.
“You have [the robots] sitting on the counter, and they already feel like they’re losing their minds, ”said Cassie Compton, an elementary teacher at the school. “Right away in the morning, they come in, they see and they say ‘Oh, are we doing this today?’ They are always eager to do so.
Teachers hope this commitment will turn into potential careers for their students. Between 2020 and 2030, IT jobs are is expected to grow 22 percent, faster than the average growth rate of 8 percent, according to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, these high paying careers are dominated by white men.
“There is no limit to your creativity. You can do whatever you want.”
Reed Wuebker, fourth grader at Perry Elementary School
Sean Roberts, Vice President of Government Affairs at Code.org, a nonprofit that promotes classroom computing and helps develop curriculum, said this disproportionate membership can be attributed to the lack of early access to the topic.
Roberts said by the time the kids reach middle school, they’ve already got a feel for their abilities and their limitations. Sometimes these notions can be based on racial or gender stereotypes, he said.
“So if we’re really going to make it a foundational piece for all students, we have to make sure all students have access to it early on,” said Roberts. “They need to know that they are good at it and can be successful at it from the start.”
Participating schools are already starting to see that coding lessons have an impact on the confidence of their young students. Mary Trent, regional director of STEM in northwest Iowa, said the topic suited the broad and creative thinking of young students perfectly.
She said coding is just another language they can learn in. It can be incorporated into reading, social studies – even gym class. As they begin to master the language of code, she said students’ self-perception changes.
“When you see that aha moment of a student when he understands it, or solves the problem, and it’s himself, he really lights up like, ‘Oh my God, I did that “” she said. “And being proud of themselves, I think, is also key.”
At Denison Elementary in western Iowa, tech integrator Darin Johnson said he’s seen kids as young as preschool experimenting with programming in new ways.
“You have kids who use these terms as algorithm and program and loop,” he said. “Who would have thought only a few years ago that they would be comfortable with these concepts?
Educators across the state first saw the transformative potential of coding at Loess Hills Elementary School. The Sioux City School began six years ago as one of the nation’s first elementary coding schools, making it the model for what computing looks like in elementary schools in Iowa. today.
The school partners with businesses, from police to farms, to show young students how computers can be used in any career.
Headmistress Tami Voegeli said she found coding isn’t just for top performing or gifted students. Educators can meet students regardless of their level.
“You would be amazed at what the kids can do. Whether it’s children of different languages or our children with special needs, I mean, they just did some really good things and are very proud of what they have done, ”Voegeli said. “And I hope that will lead them to success in their life too, because they will have additional skills and just confidence”
“If we’re really going to make it a fundamental part of all students, we need to make sure all students have access to it from the start. “
Sean Roberts, Vice President of Government Affairs at Code.org
Educators in Iowa have said it is too early to measure the success of the program so far, but they are encouraged by the levels of student engagement.
Associate director of the Iowa Governor’s STEM advisory board, Carrie Rankin, said she hopes to see the same results as other state STEM programs, like the Scale-Up program, which provides additional education. in math and science to Iowa students.
Data has shown that this program leads to higher achievement in subjects such as math, science and reading. Those at the University of Iowa who participated in the Kindergarten to Grade 12 STEM Scale-Up program were 22% more likely to specialize in a STEM field.
The success of these programs has made computer science programs a priority in the state. In 2020, Governor Kim Reynolds signed a bill in the law that will make computer courses a requirement for grades K-12. Each class will need to have a designated course offering by January 2023.
Rankin said she hopes the push will continue to inspire students to aspire to become computer scientists.
“It’s communication. It is failing and learning from failure. It’s presentation skills. It’s a whole host of things, not just the tech part of it, ”Rankin said. “It’s beyond IT, it’s life lessons.”
Lillian Lucht, a fourth grader at Perry Elementary School in central Iowa, has already decided she wants to be a coder when she grows up.
She said she had improved a lot since the school made coding part of their curriculum. When her teacher first asked her to program, she wasn’t sure she could finish her homework.
“I was super scared. Like, I felt like I couldn’t do it. But, now if my teacher asked me to do a coding project, I would just be like, ‘Okay, let’s do. it, ”she said.
Now she’s proud of her new coding skills. She said they made her feel that her possibilities were endless.