Why We Teach Coding in Elementary School

Envision a classroom of second-graders working in pairs to record data, crawling around on their hands and knees to follow bee-shaped robots as both construct knowledge on large pieces of chart paper. Meanwhile, teachers circulate to answer questions while students collect data based on their current math workshop unit of study.  
To an outsider, it may appear that the students are engaged simply because a new and exciting robotic tool is in front of them, but in reality, the students are employing critical thinking, computational thinking, and math reasoning skills that go far beyond what typically happens in a math classroom.
If you peek inside this simple math workshop, you’ll see students applying the principles of sophisticated data analysis. First, our young coders work together to sort themselves by birth month as a computer would. After creating a Google Sheet with the sorted and collected data, they work in groups of four with the robot Bee-Bot to draw a bar graph of the data and correctly label the X and Y axes.
In addition, these second-graders draw on their understanding of robotics and what they have learned about data, sorting, organizing, and graphing to create a “logo programmed” bar graph. Logo programming is a coding language in which commands represent movement and connect to an object, or a “Turtle,” to move. In this lesson, the “Turtle” was the Bee-Bot robot, and with a sharpie carefully velcroed to the front of the robot, Bee-Bot drew a bar graph on white paper after receiving the proper commands.

Bee-Bot Robots are a great tool for teaching young student to code. Here one is graphing according to student commands. Photo credits: Pine Crest School

This is just a normal day at Pine Crest School, a preK-12 school of 2,600 students in Fort Lauderdale and Boca Raton, FL, where risk-taking, debugging — the process of identifying errors in code — and a willingness to fail forward are encouraged.
“The single most important skill that children need to develop at a young age is the ability to collaborate to solve a complex problem,” says Alexis Cobo, a lower school computer science and technology specialist. “The process of ‘debugging’ often happens best when students have a large pool of resources — not only web text-based, but also a greater community of tangible student, teacher, and mentor resources to support them as they build trust, acquire confidence, to help them feel safe to fail, and learn how to persevere.”

Launching MakerEd and a Comp Sci Curriculum

The activity I have described above is part of ongoing work at Pine Crest School to reimagine how students learn and gain the skills they need to succeed in our fast-changing world. To that end, we established the Department of Educational Design and Innovation as a result of our strategic planning initiative in January 2014. We opened three Innovation Labs in the summer of 2015 and extended our computer science curriculum beyond high school to include grades pre-kindergarten through grade 8. We have found that MakerEd — problem-based learning and computational thinking — to students of all ages has ignited engagement, self-directed discovery, and deeper learning throughout our school community.
Problem-based learning is at the crux of our curriculum. In Lower School computer science classes, all students are taught computational thinking skills that include:
  • Decomposition, which encourages students to break down a problem into more manageable steps;
  • Functions nested in loops and conditionals — a specific programming terminology and tasks, which require students to create complex algorithms (a series of directions) with stored actions that can be executed in a repeated manner for either a finite or infinite amount of time; and
  • Transmission and sorting of data, which focuses students on designing and building a digital environment.
This skill development begins in the early grades. The youngest learners in Pre-Kindergarten through grade 1, known as “Pre-Coders,” gain foundational computational thinking, develop programming skills, and are able to recognize patterns, rules, and trends when solving a problem. In a typical day, students may create basic algorithms by using visual and block code in iPad applications and participate in “unplugged” games without the use of robots and various tech toys.

Students learn how to code by doing unplugged activities — ones without the use of robots or tech toys.  

Upper elementary students in grades 2 through 5 explore computing practice and programming through technology tech toys such as Dash and Dot, Ozobots, Sphero, Robot Mouse, Code-a-Pillar, Cubetto, Kibo, Lego WeDo, and the MIT block programming language Scratch.
For third-graders, a favorite activity is Rosie Runtime, which introduces young coders to the way computers “think.” We teach students to put precise commands into the correct sequence to create a working program — just like a computer! Using a life-sized game board and code cards, students direct Rosie the Robotic Dog through a maze. As they help Rosie jump over mud puddles and gather bones, students have opportunities to learn from failed attempts by finding and fixing “bugs” in their program. Not only do the students learn valuable critical thinking skills from this unplugged activity but they also develop perseverance whenever they encounter an obstacle.
“Teaching the principles and applications of coding to our youngest learners brings them opportunities to expose their brains to deep critical thinking and logical reasoning skills, which they would otherwise not exercise until much later in school,” says Cobo.

Student task cards for Rosie's Runtime Unplugged Activity.

The Power of Play

Teaching coding also allows our youngest learners, in preK, to stretch their creative abilities. When children play, they combine their existing knowledge with new ideas to solve problems and create understanding. In the process, they make mistakes, learn from those mistakes, and discover alternative solutions.
Our coders as young as pre-kindergarten use Ozobots, a small “smart toy” or programmable robot, that executes codes by following different colored paths. The color, or visual programming language, provides an excellent foundation for logic expression with students who do not read yet. Even more powerful, students use play to create an imaginary city for their Ozobot to weave through after only a few lessons coding in the color-programming language.
As students’ progress through the lower school, they move from visual programming to block programming languages. Pine Crest uses the Scratch block programming language with students as young as second grade. Developed by MIT and free for all users, Scratch is designed as an easy-to-use tool for programming, using a drag-and-drop interface, interactive stories, video games, and simulations.
“To keep pre-primary students engaged in computer science, it is important to ‘wow’ them with new games and change things often. Focusing on unplugged activities, such as Robot Turtles, Jenga, and Code Master board games, before having them code helps to build interest in the language,” says Debra Jacoby, lower school computer science and technology specialist.

Talented, Specialized Instructors

Lower School Computer Science and Technology Specialists
Alexis Cobo and Debra Jacoby

Jacoby’s and Cobo’s positions are two of several Pine Crest School added in the 2015-2016 school year. They join other computer science specialists charged with instructing students and teachers in grades PreK through grade 8 on computational thinking, robotics, and creative computing activities supported by technology devices and tools, such as iPads, laptops, and Lego Robotics. Computer science specialists also facilitate ongoing professional development in technology and innovation.
These 15 faculty members across Pine Crest School’s two campuses and the classroom teachers they partner with compose the iTeam. Together they work to create meaningful project-based learning experiences connected to the core curriculum in all subject areas, including science, social studies, humanities, arts, etc. Many faculty members have professional experience in engineering, while others have technology, computer science, and other STEM-related degrees. All are passionate about helping students make ideas tangible, and radiate enthusiasm for out-of-the-box learning.

Our Growing Program

To keep the team current with the latest instructional methodologies and technology tools, Pine Crest’s president, Dr. Dana Markham, strongly supports faculty growth and development. Markham believes that great teachers are great learners. From teacher institutes at the Exploratorium to FabLearn at Stanford University to the Computer Science Teachers Association’s annual conference, the iTeam at Pine Crest School is constantly learning innovative methodologies to enhance technology integration and instruction. The iTeam regularly presents at educational conferences nationwide on computer science, project-based learning, and innovative teaching strategies. The team also hosts their own conference, the Innovation Institute, where they showcase dynamic learning strategies and emerging technologies to transform the classroom.
“True innovation happens during the iterative process when one seeks feedback and learns to build or create for the greater good, not just for personal fulfillment. As part of a team of creative and passionate educators, we seek to model the design thinking process, and therefore implement units in which students can plan, identify needs, test, build, seek feedback, and iterate utilizing maker and computational thinking skills learned over the course of direct instructional classes,” says Cobo.

Measuring for Success

As a school that values continuous improvement, we have developed metrics to help us gauge the success of the innovation and technology program. Examples include:
  • The number of students involved in STEAM related clubs, electives, competition teams in Lower, Middle, and Upper School has quadrupled over the past three years.
  • The number of students self-selecting to take computer science AP and Post- AP courses in the Upper School has tripled.
  • 108 students earned 4’s and 5’s on the AP Computer Science Principles exam in the first year.
  • The number of faculty members who are requesting to attend conferences and workshops that focus on innovative teaching practices has doubled.
  • From 2015 until today, we have doubled the number of faculty members working in our innovation and technology department.
  • Since the summer of 2015, more than 500 educators from across the country have visited Pine Crest School to learn about the innovation and computer science curriculum.
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Lisa Ockerman

Lisa Ockerman has been part of the Pine Crest School community for more than two decades. She has served as a lower school teacher and instructional coach, and in January 2014, she was appointed director of educational design and innovation. In her current role, Lisa leads the members of the Innovation Team (iTeam) to design and develop project-based learning experiences across all grades, pre-kindergarten through grade 12.