To understand why computer science matters in 4th grade, I look at my own experiences teaching elementary students about computer science and engineering. Five years ago, I had the opportunity to be part of a new initiative my district wanted to implement called Comet Connect. Comet Connect was introduced as a missing link within our district for elementary students to gain exposure and curiosity into computer science, provide an experimental learning environment, and begin instilling the 21st Century skills sought after by employers. We built the program with the initial vision to introduce computer science or coding. Then, once the foundation of coding was introduced, the second phase was to implement engineering and the engineering design process. All the while, it was our goal to create cross-curricular or transdisciplinary opportunities in the regular education classroom. In this article, I will share some experiences and observations of my students, the adjustments I had to make when our district went from remote learning to hybrid, and how I see the successes of students learning those 21st Century skills.
Building a Strong Foundation for Fourth Grade Students:
To understand why computer science matters in elementary school, we have to understand that students at this age do best when variety and intrigue are ever-present in the classroom. In a traditional classroom setting (in class, at school) my fourth-grade students are learning coding using tablets and different types of coding apps. Interestingly, I find that students need a little help in understanding the kind of learning we are doing, but they are still eager to learn. Perhaps it’s the ‘cool factor’ of having new tech in the classroom, or the fact that we’re creating the kinds of independent learning opportunities they haven’t experienced before.
When I first introduced coding and robotics to fourth graders, I was hoping that it would be somewhat similar to my experiences in secondary education; the thought being that fourth graders would be like seniors in high school, whom I could rely upon for having more maturity than younger elementary students. Alas, sometimes that is the case and sometimes it is not, but I do find them up for being challenged and that they respond to my coaching about never settling for one way to code. This holds true for my own practice in teaching, as I never settle for one way to teach coding. I incorporated QR codes, for instance, along with apps for reading the directions, so that students could experience a lesson outside the traditional paper-based construct they were used to. I gave fourth graders lessons on how to properly conduct internet searches, understand how to use online sources, knowledge of web addresses, and how to access those sources safely. These students may not have the media-savvy of high schoolers, but they respond well to the notion of using tech and take seriously the responsibility that comes with using it responsibly.
All of this set the stage for leveling up our computer science and robotics programs in elementary classrooms during the 2019-2020 school year. I was awarded a grant for my classroom to help foster innovation. which I used to purchase robots. I wanted fourth grade students to build upon their coding background and start programming robots since this would bring a lot of the concepts together that we previously covered while also reinforcing the engineering design process, something I thought they were ready for.
The Sphero robot was a class favorite for my students, as they realized quickly that Sphero would not move unless they programmed the robot to do something. They started to see the connection between their foundation in coding to the application of making robots do what they tell them. Then I introduced students to Dash, another robot who needed instructions to perform certain tasks. Dash quickly became the new class favorite because this robot had almost human-like characteristics when he moved his head and made noises. The implementation of robotics really provided another level of learning and excitement that had students getting interested in coding and computer science. Robotics started to connect the dots for my fourth-graders, preparing them for many of the challenges that lay ahead.
Maintaining Momentum While Learning Remotely
One of the challenges that none of us anticipated early last school year was the rapid switch to remote learning due to COVID-19. And yet, what was at first a significant challenge has emerged into a meaningful opportunity to reinforce why computer science really matters in elementary education.
Remote learning opened the opportunity to start teaching engineering, a fundamental pillar for coding and computer science instruction, though delving into this topic meant I had to add more variety to my teaching. I started by creating demonstration videos and/or grabbing similar instructional videos so that students were able to access online content quickly and easily. Like many teachers, I was scrambling to pivot quickly to remote learning, so the lessons included just about anything from re-alouds, problem-solving activities, and historical content to design challenges.
The design challenges were particularly interesting; I posted the videos in Google Classroom, along with the necessary materials to complete the projects or challenges, and had students submit them to me for review. Fourth-graders quickly learned how to become independent learners and figure out how self-motivated in order to be successful in a remote learning environment. It took some patience, on their part as well as mine but students adjusted well enough to get their work done and enjoy the process. When our district decided we were going to a hybrid learning model, I continued the engineering challenges and projects. This made for an easy transition for fourth-graders to continue learning engineering whether they were in-person with me or following along at home.
Fostering Critical 21st Century Skills:
Another reason why teaching computer science to fourth graders matters is the importance of 21st Century skills that every student needs in order to be successful. So, while I may be teaching engineering concepts or helping develop coding skills, I’m also helping young learners develop skills related to communication, collaboration, critical-thinking, creativity, and problem-solving. Students may not be aware of these skills but many of them are hidden in the lessons I assign. I make it a point to include at least at least two skills embedded in each assignment so students get accustomed to them and hopefully practice them more without thought. According to a study by S.Popat & L.Starkey (2018), introducing coding at a young age increases the conceptual thinking and development of higher order thinking skills. Another study by Nouri, et al. (2020) also determined the inclusion of robotics developed the cognitive, language, creative problem-solving, and collaborative skills and attitudes of young students. I’ve seen the curiosity and relentlessness of my students learning coding and programming a robot which makes these 21st Century skills a new and exciting reality for them.
I am pleased students in my class are free to make mistakes without fear of failing and feel comfortable with the experimental learning and redesigning of ideas in a relaxed learning environment. They are not worried about a grade that would affect their report card. I feel having a head start to learning computer science in fourth grade builds confidence in students who might not always feel confident in school. I may not have specific tools to measure confidence, but when I observe students over the course of the year, I can really see the difference in their comfort levels and levels of engagement. I have had growing interest in students who are willing to try different things, which is the hallmark of curriculum designed to engage – and that’s precisely why computer science and coding in elementary is so critically important. Students want to try different and more complex coding activities and, given the chance, will find themselves (unknowingly) building resilience and perseverance skills along the way. I am confident the development of 21st Century skills are starting to show besides their learning of coding and engineering and that is why I am also confident computer science in elementary school matters.
Jalal Nouri , Lechen Zhang , Linda Mannila & Eva Norén (2020) Development of computational thinking, digital competence and 21st-century skills when learning programming in K-9, Education Inquiry, 11:1, 1-17, DOI: 10.1080/20004508.2019.1627844
Popart, S., & Starkey, L. (2019). Learning to code or coding to learn? A systematic review. Computers & Education, 128, 365–376. https://www.elsevier.com/locate/compedu