By Siddharth Muchhal
This year, Bordentown Regional Middle School took another step in upgrading the district’s computer science program through the addition of computer science discoveries courses for grades 6 through 8. These additions were led by technology education teacher Donna Esposito.
The idea to add these courses to the middle school actually stemmed from Esposito’s background. A resident of Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Esposito originally received a degree in computer science before getting her master’s in education. Amy Wright, the district’s STEM coordinator, shared her experiences with a Code.org computer science workshop she had recently attended. Esposito was inspired.
“She told me that it was the best professional development she ever attended,” Esposito said. “Since my background is in computer science, I wanted to learn new ways to get my students interested in computer science.”
Computer science principles courses (also from Code.org) were added at Bordentown Regional High School to complement the other computer courses last year, and Esposito taught a few lessons from the computer science discoveries course. “The program was under beta test last year, but the lesson plans were available to any teachers who were interested in the program,” she said. “I selected a couple of lessons that I wanted to teach my students last year.”
She decided to continue expanding the CS program in the middle school after seeing how enthusiastic her students were about the Hour of Code. The Hour of Code is a program organized by Code.org that aims to have children around the world participate in an hour of computer science learning every day for one week through fun coding games and interactive material.
After getting the support of school principal Joseph Sprague, Esposito applied to the five-day summer TeacherCon workshop hosted by Code.org and was selected.
She learned course curriculum and will also attend four Saturday sessions at The College of New Jersey throughout the year.
Currently, each grade of students is focusing on one of the six units of the CS discoveries course. Unit one focuses on problem solving and computers, while unit two is about web development, HTML, CSS, debugging and other programming skills.
“My eighth graders never had exposure to CS discoveries, so they’re actually doing the same level as the seventh graders (unit two), but hopefully, if some of them want to move on, I will introduce some of the animations and game parts in the next unit,” she said.
However, Esposito faced the obstacle of personalizing the course to fit the school schedule. “This is supposed to be a full year course, and I only see my students for 10 weeks, and then I see another group of students for the next 10 weeks because of the four-quarter marking period cycle,” she said. “That is why I had to break it up between grade levels. There are six units in the course, but we will never get to all six units because of time constraints.
“I’m hoping that if it takes off and if there are schedule changes in the future, we can offer more electives for the rest of the units in the curriculum, or offer some kind of club for kids who want to move on and learn more than the basic units that I am teaching,” she continued.
If the program progresses, Esposito also hopes to add field trips to syllabus, such as the ones taken by the high school class to Meetup and Twitter in NYC, coordinated by Code.org’s regional partners.
Esposito also had to refresh her own background in the field. “I have a degree in computer science, but I recieved my degree a while ago,” she said. “The theory behind it is still the same, but the programming languages are different than when studied computer science. Some of the units, like animation and games, I am not as familiar with, but there is a lot of teacher community support within Code.org and many teacher resources that I can access.”
So far, Esposito has seen a positive reaction from the sixth graders. “They’re having fun because the first problem we solved was trying to create aluminum boats that are supposed to hold pennies, so it’s a real hands-on activity, and they like playing with aluminum foil, water and pennies,” she said. “Some students were even able to get almost 60 pennies into the boat before it sank.”
Throughout the year, Esposito wants the students to understand the workings behind computers and technological devices. “Kids are great with technology, but they often don’t have any idea of how computers work,” she said. “There’s a lot more to computers than just using a phone and apps. They need to be able to learn that and understand how to troubleshoot with a computer problem. I want them to learn what’s going on in the background of the computer.”
All three grades start their class off with a 10-minute warmup practicing their keyboarding skills on the computers. “We’re just using a website called Edutyping for practice on how to type faster,” Jake Sfraga, a student in the class, said.
Sfraga, 12, enjoys drawing, skating and has a passion for music, but he is fascinated by computers and understands the importance of the course. “I want to learn how to type a little bit faster and to learn more about computers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the eighth graders are excited about learning HTML.
One such student is Christopher Chen, 13. Chen’s interests range from drawing, swimming and video games to understanding code and how the web works.
Chen has some background in computer science from home, as “my dad knows how to code a lot of different programming languages, so at home I learned how to code Java and HTML.”
Currently, Chen and his classmates are “at a basic stage of HTML, and we’re just learning how to use the program that we’re using to code.” Chen is looking forward to learning how web pages are made and how to use different fonts. He also hopes to learn how to problem solve, because “when coding, there’s a lot of problems that do happen, and you have to find out where you went wrong.” Chen may even pursue a career in STEM fields.
Overall, the various Code.org programs, such as CS discoveries, are part of the organization’s goal to increase computer science literacy. According to their website, over 71 percent of new STEM jobs are in computing, yet only 8 percent of STEM graduates major in computer science. Esposito and the students also add their perspective on the importance of participating in the CS Discoveries courses and becoming computer literate.
Chen states that “in the modern world, computers are becoming a bigger part, so it’s best that you know how to code, just in case.”
“I just think it’s important for everyone to take CS discoveries,” Sfraga said. “I also think it’s important that students learn how to type, because eventually they’ll be typing to complete essays, and it’s going to be harder if they don’t know how to type correctly.”
That enthusiasm is meaningful to Esposito.
“I want my students to understand what the field of computer science is all about, regardless of whether they are interested in a career at a technology company or if they are interested in fashion, sports, health, music and so on,” she said. “Computer science jobs can be found in all types of businesses. There are over 20,000 unfilled jobs in NJ right now in computer science, because students are not getting the opportunity to learn computer science.”