Tech-savvy students build foundation in computer science

St. Vrain Valley District students today are a tech-savvy generation who know their way around apps and mobile devices. But SVVSD educators are ensuring that students have a strong foundation in computer science beyond the touchscreen, covering areas like innovation, problem-solving and critical-thinking skills, and what it means to be a good digital citizen.  

“Ideally, we don't want kids to be just ‘end users,’” said Silver Creek High School Principal Erick Finnestead. “We want to cultivate a variety of skills in kids from both the aesthetic side of programming and with the computational side. Students should understand that behind that app, behind that phone, behind that game, behind that stock trading widget that there is a programmer and it could just be them. In fact, it should be them because they have better ideas than what already exists.”

Silver Creek High School uses Alice software, which was developed at Carnegie Mellon University, to introduce students to computer science concepts like variables, looping, procedures and conditional branches. In addition to a computer programming class, Silver Creek students are learning how technology integrates into other disciplines, just like the real world, through classes like Music Technology, Digital Photography, and Starting Your Own Business.

“I want to prepare students for all types of jobs,” Finnestead said. “It is evident that regardless of the industry that mechanization, digitization and certain technological proficiencies are all required. Thus, whatever job a kid may have there is going to be a need to have technology skills and our schools’ subsequent need to embed technology through multiple areas of their learning.”  

Curriculum for the newly created computer science program at Altona Middle School follows standards created by the Computer Science Teachers Association, said computer science teacher Mollie Kelleher. Altona students are introduced to the logical framework of computer coding, as well as “drag and drop” programming applications such as AgentSheets, Scratch and Tynker to create 1980s-style video games, simulations and animations. This year, Altona received donations of programmable Sphero robots, as well as grant funding to purchase Arduino kits that will help students learn about both programming and the hardware it runs on. 

After-school clubs are another option for SVVSD students who want to learn about computer science outside of the typical school day, and participate in competitions such as the Lego Robotics League, Samsung Challenge, and the Girls Code 4 Climate Contest, just to name a few. SVVSD educators said students who have struggled to demonstrate their learning in traditional ways are able to share their learning and become more involved with school through computer science activities. 

Also, a number of the SVVSD computer science programs and clubs teach students about computer literacy, “digital citizenship” and ethics so they can be good stewards of the technology they manage on a daily basis.

“We recognize the need to meet students where they are at rather than expecting them to meet us where we are at as adults around technology,” said Assistant Principal Rachel Heide, who added that Erie Middle School is putting a greater emphasis on coding in technology classes by using Scratch and Python programming languages. Knowing that girls are highly underrepresented in STEM fields, Erie Middle School has a special computer programing club just for girls called Tigers Who Code, which is supported by the national nonprofit Girls Who Code. Last year, two Erie students won the national Samsung Challenge by designing an app that used music and word games to help students with dyslexia and autism improve their math and language skills.

Longs Peak Middle School is using Google’s CS-First curriculum for its after school coding club. Through a partnership with Google, Longs Peak has connected with other Front Range schools that have used computer science to empower its students, and Google employees are mentoring LPMS students through classroom projects, with the ultimate goal of having the most dedicated students in computer science visiting the Google office in Boulder for a personal tour.

“We anticipated we could fill 30 seats, but were pleasantly surprised to have 65 kids submit applications after just three days,” said Longs Peak computer science teacher Colin Rickman of the of the coding club. “Our goal is to not only offer our students amazing learning opportunities but to also provide them with the tools necessary to be successful in the 21st Century."