How do you teach younger students computer science?

Expert: Connecting computer science to everyday experiences is one way to help K-8 students learn about one of the 21st century's most important topics.
Written by Nate Delesline III, Staff Writer
Girl Using Digital Tablet In Computer Class. Behind her, other students look at their computer screens while the teacher instructs.
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To teach language to the youngest students, you first introduce them to the letters of the alphabet and the sounds that the letters make. Next, you step forward into combining letters into simple words, then sentences. 

To teach math, you start with numbers, then counting, then basic addition and subtraction.

So, where do you start when it comes to teaching kindergarten through middle school students the basics of computer science? ZDNet asked, and here's what three education experts said.

Expert: Sometimes failure is part of learning in computer science

Kim Wilkens, a white woman wearing glasses and an embroidered brown jacket, smiles in a professional headshot.

Kim Wilkens

University of Virginia

Kim Wilkens said one of the first messages she shares with teachers who are learning about computer science is that problem-solving through trial and error — and occasional failure — is OK. 

Wilkens is a University of Virginia doctoral student. She's studying K-8 computer science (CS) education. She is also the founder of Charlottesville Women in Tech and the nonprofit Tech-Girls.

Trial and error is a fundamental element of teaching, learning, and working in computer science, she explained.

So too is the fact that "there can be multiple 'right' answers to the problem," Wilkens said. 

This means there is an experimentation culture in CS education, where trying things out and being creative is encouraged.

Regarding pandemic-related changes, "one positive I heard, especially with teaching CS to elementary students, is that because the students had access to and practice with technology, more time could be devoted to teaching CS concepts and not just how to use technology," Wilkens said. 

"A couple of challenges I heard about was the difficulty in supporting students when they ran into problems with their code and screen fatigue during the pandemic."

Jennie Chiu smiles in a professional outdoor photo. She is leaning against a brick column and is wearing a black shirt.

Jennie Chiu

University of Virginia

Jennie Chiu, an associate professor of education at UVA's School of Education and Human Development, echoed Wilkens' perspective.

"I would add connecting CS concepts to students' everyday lives, cultures, and prior experiences as another pedagogical strategy, especially for elementary students," she said. "Many CS concepts are related to everyday experiences." 

For example, dancing involves loops. Or you may use a conditional when deciding how to get dressed in the morning — if it's cold, then I will put on a sweatshirt. Algorithms can be thought of as recipes.

"However, it is equally important after making these connections to help students understand and distinguish the differences between everyday language and experiences and computer science language and programming," Chiu said.

Keys to teaching computer science in elementary school

"K-4 students explore CS concepts through unplugged activities, coding games, robotics, and block-based programming," Wilkens said. 

"At this age, students need opportunities to practice recognizing and using patterns, sequences, loops, conditions (if/then), event-driven programming and debugging to solve problems. They also need to be exposed to the vocabulary of CS and how CS relates to the world around them." 

Chiu said unplugged learning experiences — away from computer screens — are important.

"Unplugged activities help students understand that computer science is more than just working with computers and instead a way of thinking and solving problems that extends into many other fields and domains," said Chiu. 

"However, just as Kim stated, the joy and excitement that students get from working with various computing devices and realizing that they can make that piece of technology do what they want it to do is empowering and an important opportunity for all students to have."

Computer science in middle school: Cultivate curiosity 

Grades 5-8 can be a stressful time for students, teachers, and families. 

Most kids who live in the U.S. in these grades are 10 to 14 years old. The upper elementary and middle school years are often a period of fast-moving changes for tweens, teens, and their families.

When it comes to learning about technology and computer science, during this time, the focus on honing programming skills continues. Kids in this age group also start exploring syntax through text-based coding platforms. 

In addition, "they also gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between hardware, software, data and the impact of technology on their world," Wilkens said. 

"At this age, students need opportunities to create technology projects across disciplines. As their projects gain complexity, students will also begin making independent decisions about when and where to incorporate variables, boolean logic, and procedures."

Wilkens said students in this older age group "should be challenged to consider the usability of their designs and to iterate on their solutions. They must also weigh the ethical consequences of using their power to create tech for good or ill."

Computer science curriculums for K-8 students should also have a foundation of cultivating student curiosity, said Kevin Good. He is an assistant professor of special education in the College of Education at the University of Mary Washington.

"I love to tell my teacher-preparation students that computer science should be like a trip with Ms. Frizzle, one in which we take chances and make mistakes," Good said. 

Other curriculum elements should include critical and abstract thinking skills, collaboration, and communication, Good said.

Finally, it likely comes as no surprise that the pandemic reshaped how computer science is taught to America's younger students. The changes include a push to get a device in every student's hands for academic use. 

But your access and experience — or the experience your student will have — depends on where in America you live.

High school learners passionate about computer science might also consider online or in-person bootcamps, like Google's Code Next program, which recently opened a Detroit location.

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