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North Hills curriculum creates pint-sized programmers

November 10, 2018

Librarian Elizabeth Spicer knew the North Hills School District’s Computer Programming Curriculum was a hit when coding books started flying off the shelves.

Launched at the beginning of the school year, the classes help students in kindergarten through sixth grade become tech-savvy software engineers who don’t just use apps such as Instagram -- they create them.

Spicer, who is a library media specialist and K-12 library media programs curriculum leader, wrote a proposal to implement computer science into the six-day cycle, an idea that was immediately approved by the school board.

Educators piloted the program last year and hired four new teachers who underwent professional development workshops, including Keyboarding Without Tears.

“Kids have actually gone down in their computer skills because they’re so used to using iPads,” Spicer explains. “They touch a screen. They don’t know how to type or use a mouse.”

Rather than plop students in front of screens, the new coursework starts with physical challenges that instill college-ready skills and reinforces the importance of persistence, teamwork, problem-solving and communication.

For instance, Highcliff Elementary School second-graders were instructed to use gumdrops and toothpicks to build a stable structure that was taller than a Dixie cup and could hold a hardbound book. Meanwhile, third-graders at McIntyre Elementary School performed outdoor relay races to see how fast they could program a pattern. Teams were given a design and told to make a series of commands to make it happen.

“These activities are laying the groundwork for the thought processes you need to code,” says Amanda Hartle, district communications director.

As the year progresses, they’ll be using these skills to create their own websites and apps. Students who don’t have access to a computer or a mobile device at home have the opportunity to visit the district’s computer labs during their daily free time. Digital Citizenship also is part of the deal. Students are learning that their online actions have consequences in the real world.

Seeing the new curriculum in action is thrilling for Computer Programming teacher Erica Kain.

The Bethel Park native spent the last 17 years in California’s Silicon Valley teaching math and doing public relations for video game designers.

As a kid, she began coding with her father on the family’s TRS-80, which they hooked up to the television to input data from a cassette recorder. Kain, 47, spent her childhood summers at computer camp, where she was usually the only female in attendance.

Times have changed.

Today’s girls are “digital natives” and they don’t want to simply be controlled by technology, they want to take the reins.

“Programming isn’t as abstract as it was when I was little,” Kain says. “It’s about interacting with the whole world. ”

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