Reading, writing, arithmetic, and now coding for youngest learners

Teacher Brian Adams stood at a whiteboard and explained the basics of computer programming to 19 rapt students. “You’re going to log onto your devices, get on your account, and you’re going to go through each of the steps,” he instructed. “I know it’s your first time, so if you need me, just raise your hands.”

His tiny students popped up from the floor of their classroom at Conshohocken’s Ridge Park Elementary School and sat at desks with tablets or computers, opened the program, then clicked on arrows to make a colorful fuzz ball move around the screen. They were first graders, barely done learning their ABCs, but their Montgomery County school was launching them into a new orbit of computer coding that it is hoped won’t end until they land a high-tech job, or at least one that requires programming skills.

“You were just a programmer,” Adams told the room of 5- and 6-year-olds as they finished the game from the online learning site Kodable, whose tagline is, “Learn to code before you know how to read.” Over the next few weeks, he said, the class will create a “loop” of oft-repeated basic commands and debug errors in the code.

Camera icon GENEVA HEFFERNAN / Staff Photographer
Teacher Brian Adams helps first-grader Dominic Hayn, 6, during a computer programming lesson at Ridge Park Elementary School in Conshohocken.

The Colonial School District is cited by officials as a regional leader in a race to reinvent classroom education, to make kids as fluent in computer algorithms as in English, and to prepare them for an economy in which many of the fastest-growing job categories already require knowledge of computer programming.

That future is already here, noted Judd Pittman, the state Department of Education’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) guru, citing a recent survey by Google and the coding education group Code.org which found between 17,000 and 21,000 computer-related jobs in the state that can’t be filled.

And many educators concede that Pennsylvania is scrambling to catch up with other states. Some of the larger urban school districts — such as Chicago, Los Angeles, and New York — jumped onto the coding-education bandwagon in the last decade, spurred on by the National Science Foundation or grants from large technology companies such as Apple and Microsoft.

“There’s a little bit of groundswell now, but we haven’t reached a tipping point,” said Lauren Poutasse of the Delaware County Intermediate Unit, which has trained scores of Philadelphia-area elementary school teachers on the basics of coding over the last two years. “People are at least more aware of it than they used to be, which is a big step for us.”

But Poutasse and other officials acknowledge that the state’s largest district, Philadelphia, is just beginning to integrate computer science into its curriculum, with Advanced Placement courses in only a handful of high schools. Pittman cited some Philadelphia grade schools, such as Chester A. Arthur Elementary, as taking the first steps toward coding education but agreed there is considerable room for growth.

“It is truly the white space on the board right now,” said Naomi Housman, executive director and president of the Philadelphia STEM Lab, who is organizing a December summit with city education stakeholders seeking to create a higher sense of urgency. “If we don’t provide this kind of learning, our kids are not going to have a path to the future.” One goal of educators is to put more women and nonwhite students on a path toward high-tech careers.

Melanie Harris, Philadelphia’s chief information officer, touted the district’s ambitious K-8 technology curriculum but conceded that not every school has a computer science teacher to implement it. The hope is that math or science teachers will pick up the slack and work skills like coding into their curriculums.

Experts agree that jobs that require computer-coding skills are growing more rapidly than other occupations — 12 percent faster, according to a 2016 study from the job-market analytics firm Burning Glass — with a particularly high demand in booming fields such as finance and health care.

What’s more, boosters of coding education say that starting young helps students develop other essential skills such as logic and problem solving, collaboration, understanding cause-and-effect, and — as anyone who’s spent time on a computer knows well — perseverance.

“You don’t even need a computer to teach computational thinking — you can do it in nature, in cooking,” said Housman. “We absolutely have to teach kids to think that way and problem-solve. Then when they get older, they can learn languages, and how the machines think, and they can tell the machines how to do things.”

But one of the challenges in the Philadelphia region is training teachers — many of whom were raised at the dawn of the computer age — with the knowledge they need to pass on to their students. Many districts that have a head start in technology education can thank early adapters like Brenda McPherson-Fry, the librarian at Lansdowne’s Ardmore Avenue Elementary School in the William Penn School District.

In her once-a-week library class, McPherson-Fry teaches the basics of coding to mostly fifth and sixth graders. In a recent session, she was telling them about “looping” — codes that are repeated just like daily routines, or a refrain in a song. “They’re the words in a song most us remember,” she said. “We’re repeating them.”

“When they look at you for college, they’re going to see you can do a little computer coding,” said sixth grader Jacob Diggs, 11, who like many kids that age has dreams of designing video games or building a 3-D printer.

The Delaware County IU has now trained roughly 300 teachers in elementary school and 60 teachers in middle and high school in coding, in the William Penn, Garnet Valley, Springfield, and other school districts in the Philadelphia area. As the regional training partner for Code.org in eastern Pennsylvania, the unit’s ambitious goal for 2017-18, according to Poutasse, is to bring computer science education to 30 high schools and 30 middle schools, and train 500 elementary school teachers.

In New Jersey, Code.org has reported progress in training about 3,350 elementary school teachers in coding basics, but it also reports much room for growth, with just 190 schools in the Garden State offering the AP computer science class despite a high rate of job openings calling for computer skills.

Camera icon geneva heffernan / Staff Photographer
First-grader Kealen Devore, 6, shows off his progress on a computer programming activity at Ridge Park Elementary School in Conshohocken.

Few if any districts in the Philadelphia region are as energized as Colonial, where educators have heavily promoted STEM learning, incorporating art and design into basic STEM education. At Ridge Park Elementary, technology is a special subject along with art, music, library and phys ed. Adams said the computer game with the fuzz balls may be fun for the kids, but it’s also teaching them the core concepts of computer programming even if “they don’t realize it yet.”

“What did you do with the fuzz ball? …You gave him directions,” he told his students. “If you didn’t give him directions, would he know to do it himself? No. You gave him the steps he needed to get to the end.”

Several of the first graders said this was their favorite class.

“They are very engaged,” Adams acknowledged as little hands skimmed over keyboards. “I’m going to have to stop them in a minute and it’s not going to be pretty.”