An Iowa program brings coding into elementary schools. Educators hope it levels the playing field.
Jen Conrad’s classroom at Kingsley-Pierson Elementary in Plymouth County has all the attributes of a normal learning space.
There are colorful books, sharpened pencils and desks decorated with names of each student.
But amid the classroom staples, there are also robots of different sizes that whir around the gray carpet. All controlled by fourth-graders like Brylee Lewis, who can program how fast or how slow they move through a set of instructions called code.
“My favorite part is how the robots can move without a controller,” Lewis said, as she finished up a coding assignment in class. “It’s just fun.”
Kingsley Pierson Elementary, which sits in the small rural town of Kingsley, is one of 12 elementary schools across Iowa that received a grant in 2019 to bring computer science into the classroom. The schools, who have 40 percent of students on free and reduced lunch, have begun to integrate coding into every lesson this year.
Iowa educators hope these computer science-focused elementaries can help level the education playing field. Through the “Computer Science is Elementary” program, they hope children of all demographics will see themselves as coders.
“We're going to need more computer scientists, whether that'd be programmers or creators, we're going to need them now. The skills we're teaching the kids, they will be able to take those and transform them into careers,” she said.
Before Kingsley-Pierson Elementary received its $50,000 grant, the school district didn’t even have a computer for each student. But now, the teachers are using binary numbers and animations called “sprites” in their daily lessons.
The technology has brought a whole new level of student engagement to the classrooms.
“You have [the robots] sitting on the counter, and they're like losing their minds already,” said Cassie Compton, an elementary teacher at the school. “Right away in the morning, they walk in, they see and they say ‘Oh, are we doing that today?’ They're always looking forward to doing that.”
Teachers hope this engagement will grow into potential careers for their students. Between 2020 and 2030, computer science jobs are estimated to grow by 22 percent, faster than the average growth rate of 8 percent, according to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics. But, these high-paying careers are dominated by white men.
"There's no limit to your creativity. You can do whatever you want."
Sean Roberts, the vice president of government affairs at Code.org, a nonprofit that advocates for computer science in the classroom and helps develop curriculum, said this disproportional makeup can be attributed to the lack of early access to the subject.
Roberts said by the time kids reach middle school, they’ve already formed an idea of their capabilities and their limitations. Sometimes, those notions can be based on racial or gendered stereotypes, he said.
“So if we truly want to make this foundational for all students, we need to make sure all students have access to it early,” Roberts said. “They need to know that they're good at it and can succeed at it early on.”
Participating schools are already beginning to see coding lessons impact their young students’ confidence. Iowa’s northwest regional STEM manager Mary Trent said the subject is perfectly suited for young students’ wide and creative thinking.
She said coding is just another language for them to learn in. It can be integrated into reading, social studies — even gym class. When they begin to get fluent in the language of code, she said students’ views of themselves changes.
“When you see that aha moment from a student when they figure it out, or they solve the problem, and it's all their own, they really light up like ‘Oh my gosh, I did that’,” she said. “And taking pride in themself I think is really key too.”
At Denison Elementary in western Iowa, technology integrationist Darin Johnson said he’s seen children as young as preschool experiment with programming in new ways.
“You got kids using those terms like algorithm and program and loop,” he said. “Who would have thought even just a few years ago that they'd be comfortable with those concepts?
State educators first saw the transformative potential of coding at Loess Hills Elementary School. The Sioux City school began six years ago as one of the first elementary coding schools in the nation — making it the blueprint for what computer science in Iowa elementary schools looks like today.
The school partners with businesses, from police to farms, to show young students how computer science can be used in any career.
Principal Tami Voegeli said she’s found that coding isn’t just for their high-achieving or gifted students. Educators are able to meet students no matter what level they are.
“You’d be amazed at what kids can do. Whether it's in kids from different languages, or our special needs kids, I mean, they've just done some really great things and had some great pride in what they've done,” Voegeli said. “And hopefully, that will lead them through success in their life too, because they'll have extra skills and just confidence”
"If we truly want to make this foundational for all students, we need to make sure all students have access to it early."
Iowa educators said it’s too early to measure the program’s success so far, but they’re encouraged by the levels of engagement from students.
Associate Director for the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council Carrie Rankin said she hopes to see the same results that they’ve received from other state STEM programs, like the Scale-Up program – which brings additional math and science education to students across Iowa.
Data has shown this program leads to higher achievement in subjects like math, science and reading. Iowa university enrollees who took part in the STEM Scale-Up Program in K-12 grade were 22 percent more likely to major in a STEM field.
The success of these programs has made computer science programs a priority in the state. In 2020, Gov. Kim Reynolds signed a bill into the law that will make computer science classes a requirement for grades from K-12. Each classroom will need to have one designated course offering by January of 2023.
Rankin said she hopes the push will continue to uplift students to aspire to be computer scientists.
“It’s communication. It’s failing and learning from failure. It’s presentation skills. It’s a whole host of things, not just the technology piece of it,” Rankin said. “It’s beyond computer science, it’s life lessons.”
Lillian Lucht, a fourth-grader at Perry Elementary School in central Iowa, has already decided that she wants to be a coder when she grows up.
She said she’s improved a lot in the short time since the school made coding a part of its curriculum. When her teacher first asked her to program, she wasn’t confident she’d be able to finish her homework.
“I was super duper scared. Like, I felt like I can’t do it. But, now, if my teacher asked me to do a coding project, I’d just be like, ‘Okay, let's do it,’” she said.
Now, she feels proud of her newfound coding skills. She said they make her feel like her possibilities are endless.