Beyond Computer Literacy

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10 resources for teaching computer science

By Susan Brooks-Young

Just five years ago, only 14 states had adopted standards for teaching computer science (CS), and each of those targeted high-school students. Today, the vast majority of state legislatures (44 as of this printing) have passed some type of law or regulation requiring schools to offer computer science instruction in grades K-12. The expectation set in this more recent legislation is that all students, starting with kindergarteners, will participate in learning activities designed to introduce them to concepts that lay the foundation for understanding the many facets of CS. An additional expectation is that high-school students will be offered opportunities to enroll in for-credit courses designed to provide in-depth explorations of specific CS concepts.

As private education institutions, Catholic schools may not be required to provide CS instruction, but given national trends, it would be shortsighted to ignore this movement. Students need a deeper understanding of general CS concepts, both personally and in their future professions. Based on this assertion, Catholic-school teachers will benefit from learning how this could impact their instructional goals and plans.

What is the best approach for teachers to take as they plan and implement CS lessons for all students? A proliferation of free websites designed to teach children and teens coding skills has cropped up in the last few years. This might lead educators to conclude that by teaching their students some simple programming they are meeting new requirements for CS instruction, particularly for students in grade five and younger. In reality, though, coding is just the tip of the iceberg. CS concepts cover a wide variety of areas, and students need exposure to all the possibilities.

Every K-12 educator, even those who are not teaching dedicated CS courses, needs two things: a clear definition of what constitutes the field of CS and resources they can use to increase their own understanding of CS and to develop and teach CS content to their students.

Computer science defined

What exactly is CS? The University of Maryland Department of Computer Science defines it as “the study of computers and computational systems.” Their definition continues, “Unlike electrical and computer engineers, computer scientists deal mostly with software and software systems; this includes their theory, design, development, and application.” This is an important distinction. Without that final phrase, it’s easy to confuse computer science with computer literacy, which focuses on those skills required to use computers effectively — such as word processing, data entry, or online communications. The emphasis of CS is on how the technology works, not how to use it.

There’s more. The definition offered by the University of Maryland goes on to include a list of areas of study within the field of computer science. These include: “artificial intelligence, computer systems and networks, security, database systems, human computer interaction, vision and graphics, numerical analysis, programming languages, software engineering, bioinformatics and theory of computing.”

As you can see, this covers a lot of ground. In-depth explorations of these topics won’t be appropriate for most students until they reach high school, but there are ways to introduce younger students to CS concepts that can pave the way for greater understanding as they move through the elementary grades and middle school. Here are 10 resources educators can use as they incorporate CS experiences into their classrooms.

Resources for computer science standards/frameworks

My personal preference when approaching new content is to start with standards and frameworks I can use to get the big picture of what I need to know and understand to facilitate student learning. Here are three resources I’ve found very helpful for this purpose. I did not include ISTE’s Standards for CS Educators because they specifically target secondary-level teachers of in-depth CS courses.

  • K-12 Computer Science Framework. For a clear, understandable overview of CS as a content area, begin your study by reading this framework.
  • CSTA K-12 Computer Science Standards for Students, revised 2017. Published by the Computer Science Teachers Association, these standards lay out the foundational computer science skills every K-12 student needs to learn. They also emphasize the importance of student access to rigorous, in-depth computer science courses at the secondary level.
  • ISTE’s CT (Computational Thinking) Competencies for Educators. Computational thinking is a strategy that is used to analyze and solve complex problems. There are prescribed steps in this process, and even primary-aged students can use CT to solve problems. ISTE’s CT Competencies provide support to K-12 educators as they learn to use this approach to problem solving within the context of teaching CS skills.

Resources for classroom implementation

Once you have a sense of the big picture, look at examples of full curricula and lesson plans to develop a sense of what classroom implementation might entail. The activities in the following free resources can be used as is or modified for your specific classroom needs.

Computer Science Fundamentals. This curriculum guide covers grades K through 5. Developed by, the underlying assumption is that teachers using the materials will have little or no computer science background, so they will be learning along with their students. Courses are organized by grade level, but there is also a sequence based on reading level. Each course contains 18 to 20 lessons, and additional materials are available online.
The guide also includes Computer Science Fundamentals: Express Course for students in grades six and higher. Teachers can learn more about courses and free one-day workshops.

Computer Science-in-a-Box: Unplug Your Curriculum (2018 Update). Lessons here target students ages 9 to 14. In addition to explaining how computers work, some activities present critical math and science skills in logic, number systems, algorithms, and more. All activities were developed by the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and can be completed offline. Explore the site to find additional related resources, including a guide for building inclusive CS programs.

CS Unplugged. Developers of this collection of classroom resources designed the activities with young students (ages 5 to 10) in mind. Their goal is to offer opportunities for educators and students to explore various aspects of CS through undertakings that are accessible and do not require programming skills to master. The site was updated recently, but the original lesson plans are still available. Take a look at both the new and original material. In addition to lesson plans, the site hosts an area showing how each activity can be integrated into academic content areas and offers general suggestions for ways teachers can approach incorporating CS instruction into their classrooms.

Resources: free online tools

Finally, spend some time trying various free online tools you and your students can use to complete different activities.

Scratch and Scratch, Jr. Scratch programming language is designed for use with students ages 8 to 16, while Scratch, Jr. is appropriate for use with students ages 5 to 7. Both tools allow students to create interactive stories and games. Scratch also has the capability to create animations. Take time to explore each site to find classroom examples and activities. Scratch is web-based and will run in most web browsers on laptops and tablets.

Scratch, Jr. runs on iPads, Android tablets, and Chromebooks.

The Alice Project. This tool provides an environment where middle- and high-school students learn to program through exploration by creating animations, interactive stories, and games. The site offers two versions of Alice, one for beginners and the other for more experienced users. In addition to learning how to program, students develop computational thinking and logic skills when working in this environment. Lesson plans, activities, Alice-based textbooks, and other resources are also available on the site.

Experiments with Google: AI (Artificial Intelligence) Collection. For 10 years, Google has collected and showcased experiments using various tools. The AI Collection includes tools and resources you and your students can use to explore numerous examples of AI at work.

  • The Quick, Draw experiment is a favorite for students of all ages.
  • MIT App Inventor. A web-based tool that enables middle-school students to create their own apps for smartphones and tablet devices. May be appropriate for upper elementary students, as well.

For a long time, we thought that teaching computer literacy was enough for most learners. While computer literacy is a necessary skill set, there is so much more that students need to know if they are to successfully navigate a world where technology impacts nearly every facet of daily life. Understanding how technology works will aid students in making informed decisions about when and why to employ specific technologies. What steps will you take to provide or expand computer science instruction in your classroom?

Susan Brooks-Young, a former Catholic-school teacher, spent 23 years as a teacher and administrator. She now works as a professional consultant and author. She is co-author of Pathways to Well-Being: Helping Educators (and Others) Find Balance in a Connected World (ISTE 2019).

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