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Officials Look To Spread Sioux City Educational Technology Initiative To High Poverty Schools

Katie Peikes/IPR
Students at Loess Hills Elementary are learning everything from the basics of coding through activities and games to using actual coding programs like Kodable and Tinker.

State officials are looking to expand digital literacy at six high poverty elementary schools across Iowa. They visited a Sioux City elementary school on Wednesday to learn about how students have benefitted from computer programming.
At  Loess Hills Elementary in the Sioux City Community School District, students as young as kindergarten are learning how to code. Jeffrey Gacke has been teaching his second grade class about a program called Kodable. The program uses games to teach children the basics of coding.

Gacke’s class demonstrated a game called “Code My Teacher” in front of visiting officials and educators. Gacke wrote directions on the board like “forward”, “right”, “left” and “sit” and students could call out only one of those directions at a time to move Gacke from one side of the room to a chair on the other side.

“These are the only codes they are able to use and I’m like a computer to where I will only do those four things,” Gacke said. “…Computers are smart, but only because people have programmed those computers. And if it’s not up here on the board I’m not gonna do it.”

Loess Hills Elementary is a specialty school that teaches children about computer programing. Principal John Beeck said in the five years since the school opened, he has noticed students seem more confident in what they’re learning.

“It’s showing up not just when they’re on the computer creating things, it’s just when they’re talking, expressing themselves, when they’re doing math, when they’re doing language arts,” Beeck said.

Beeck said they start with a basic off-screen level of coding in kindergarten, where they learn movement and directionality – the basics to computer science. By the time they reach fifth grade, they’ve learned other programs like Kodable and Tinker.

And some students, like sixth grader Langston Saint who graduated from the school last year, have enjoyed coding so much that they plan to continue to use it. Saint said coding has helped build his creativity.

“Coding has changed me in the fact that I think I know how to express myself better now that I know how to code," Saint said.

Saint said he joined Loess Hills Elementary in third grade and quickly moved through some advanced coding programs. He is trying to learn a program called JavaScript in his spare time.

Saint said he’d like to be a computer programmer and eventually a politician when he grows up.

Gov. Kim Reynolds and the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council are drafting a request for proposals so schools from around the state can apply to bring these hands-on learning opportunities to their students.

Carrie Rankin, the managing director for the council, said they want to take concepts from Loess Hills Elementary and bringing similar ones to high poverty schools, so more diverse populations are introduced to this technology. After a tour of the school, she said the level of engagement she noticed in Loess Hills Elementary is something she’d like to see replicated in other schools.

“Coding, what I saw in the different classrooms I was in, really gives the students an opportunity to get hands on [learning] and really immerse themselves into the work that they’re learning, in a subject matter, not just coding, but how social studies fits with that, how reading fits with that…” Rankin said.

The 25 member advisory group hopes to award grants by next summer so six more schools can have a similar program.

Katie Peikes was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio from 2018 to 2023. She joined IPR as its first-ever Western Iowa reporter, and then served as the agricultural reporter.