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Turning computer users into computational scientists

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The Evanston/Skokie School District 65 will soon be striving to convert those students who mindlessly play computer games into creative persons who understand how to design their own computer programs.  And they want to start the process in kindergarten.

A technicality in the contract negotiations with the teachers recently created an opening for two new courses for students in the elementary school years.

After teachers and administrators looked at various alternatives, they settled on two courses. Students would experience the class one day a week and would have equal exposure to the two courses over the kindergarten-through-5th-grade continuum.

One course would deal with social emotional learning and equity, designed to strengthen adult and student relationships, increased self-regulation, and a greater sense of belonging and success at school.

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But the second course, Computational Science– would try to harness the students’ love—some might call it an addiction—with computers to perhaps steer some of them into those higher-paying computer-related jobs of the future that their parents mostly scratch their heads and wonder about.

Stacy Beardsley, the district’s executive director of curriculum and instruction, tried to explain the concept to board members at a meeting Monday night, augmented by a memo in the board’s agenda packet.

She explained it this way:

“The goal of the Introduction to Computational Science (CS) is to expose all students to the concepts of computational thinking and algorithmic processes. In this class, students will have the opportunity to apply computer science concepts to designing and building (coding) solutions to problems using technology. Students will be able to experience being active creators of technology.”

While attempting to minimize the use of such computer science buzzwords as code, symbol , sequence, algorithm, and loops, Beardsley focused on the economic aspects of the students’ futures, particularly noting how it could change the lives of females and students of color, who might otherwise eschew such advantages.

For example, she quoted from the Bureau of Labor Statistics that in 2013, African Americans and Latinos comprised only 14 percent of all computer programmers, while women comprised only 23 percent.

She quoted other resources that predicted that so-called STEM jobs—science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—comprise the fastest growing job sector and that two-thirds of these jobs involve computing.

But regardless of a student’s ultimate occupation, she said that an understanding of computational science will be critical.

“Since our students will live in a world that is even more heavily influenced by computing,” she said, “we must introduce them to structured problem solving and computational thinking prior to entering college or the workforce.”

This is not a new concept, she said, as it is being actively pursued in the tech-rich areas near San Francisco, and the district is utilizing the results of the experiences of those districts that have already practiced it.

The goal at District 65, she said, is to expose all students to the concepts of computational thinking and algorithmic processes that will enable them to be active creators of technology and not just passive users as they do currently.

Adding these courses, Beardsley said, will require adding six persons to the instructional staff and a total annual expenditure of nearly $500,000, including $10,000 in training costs.

After presenting the concept to the board Monday night, she is looking forward to getting a goahead decision at the April 24 board meeting.

Charles Bartling

A resident of Evanston since 1975, Chuck Bartling holds a master’s degree in journalism from Northwestern University and has extensive experience as a reporter and editor for daily newspapers, radio stations and business-oriented magazines.

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