Expert Viewpoint

How To Build a Computer Science Curriculum with Existing Staff

A Career and STEM Academy Director Shares How Her District Responded to a State Mandate By Collaborating with Teachers and Students

Students will need computer science and STEM skills throughout their education and career, regardless of what future career field they choose. With this in mind, the state of Indiana mandated that schools offer computer science for all K–12 students starting last year.

At Barr-Reeve Community Schools, we didn’t have the resources to build a computer science curriculum from scratch. Nevertheless, we created a program that not only meets the requirements of the mandate, but also gets teachers and students excited about learning. We learned a number of lessons along the way, but the biggest takeaway was this: You can transform your curriculum and provide students with the computer science skills they need, often with the teachers and tools you already have in the classroom.

Where to Begin Starting a New Computer Science Program

When our school district first started looking at launching our computer science curriculum, the question quickly became, "Where do we start?" Some districts undertaking a new curriculum begin in elementary school and scale up from there; others focus first on teaching high-schoolers the job skills they need before they graduate.

With funding from a Digital Learning Grant through the Indiana Department of Education a couple of years ago, we were able to introduce computer science to all grade levels and schools at the same time. If you choose to follow our path, that doesn't mean that you have to launch a full-blown computer science curriculum on Day 1. A strategic first step is to get buy-in from teachers and administrators in each school by meeting them where they are.

Start By Meeting Teachers Where They Are

When we were ready to implement our district-wide curriculum, we took stock of what teachers were available and interested. For example, we had one teacher who had previously taught computer science using materials from but needed a more structured, sequential curriculum. We also had teachers who were interested in computer science but had not taught it or gone to school for it.

To provide all of our teachers with the vital preparation and support they needed, we chose Codelicious, a K–12 computer science curriculum that offers teachers step-by-step instructions. Codelicious also was willing to adjust the beginning of the curriculum into smaller steps that helped the teachers learn and reinforce foundational concepts that would be most important for the students. Since the teachers could see exactly what they needed to do and exactly how they needed to teach, they could present that information to students more easily.

Moving Away from the Traditional Lecture Format

Because we didn't expect our teachers to be computer science experts, we embraced an instructional model that moved beyond the “sage on the stage.” This collaborative approach made the most of the fact that students are often more tech-literate than educators, especially at the middle and high school level.

Instead of the teacher standing at the front of the room and lecturing, our teachers serve as guides who ask the right questions and learn alongside their students. For example, when we first started the computer science program, a student was building a website — but there was a problem with the code. The teacher took that problem home and worked on it all weekend. By Monday, he was completely frustrated and overwhelmed because he couldn’t find the issue.

We met with the team from Codelicious, and the guidance for that teacher was simple: It’s not all on you. Instead of taking up all your time with this problem, throw the code on the board and ask your students, “Who can help debug this? What are we missing?”

The other key question we encourage teachers to ask themselves in situations like this is, “What is your end goal here?” Is it that the site runs perfectly, or is it that students are learning along the way? Our computer science program is about teaching kids how to think and learn and be resourceful, not necessarily just about providing them with static information. This approach applies to almost anything kids might want to do — not just in STEM-related fields, but in any career they might choose to pursue outside of it.

Creating a Learning Journey

Bringing computer science to the classroom isn't about putting students in a single computer science class and expecting them to learn everything they might need to know about STEM from that. Instead, it's about providing them with the opportunity to set out on a learning journey.

This is the Google generation. They have access to all the information they could possibly need at their fingertips. They carry their devices with them, and they know how to perform those searches, but they need to know how to use that information once they have it — and they need to know how to take that knowledge and apply it to new and different situations. We can replicate that in the classroom by showing how computer science applies to all of their subjects. In our district, computer science doesn't just show up as an elective or in a science classroom. It is also a part of learning in social studies, English, and math.

With this philosophy in place, our teachers have been able to focus on making computer science something students look forward to. One of our science teachers says that bringing computer science into his lessons has brought a lot of enjoyment into his class. Students have gotten used to computer science at the elementary level. They’re comfortable with it and accustomed to it, and if he wants to meet students where they are, he needs to provide more computer science instruction. With support, he’s now able to offer students lessons that they’re excited about.

Like Barr-Reeve, your school or district may already have the resources you need to introduce a comprehensive computer science curriculum. By meeting teachers where they are and teaching students how to solve problems, not just how to absorb and regurgitate information, you can create a more effective learning environment that better prepares students for their future careers.

About the Author

Andrea Huff is the career and STEM Academy director for Barr-Reeve Community Schools in Montgomery, Indiana, which has total enrollment of just under 1,000 students. Andrea can be reached at [email protected].