high-tech curriculum

Online coding program enhances computer science offerings in Catholic schools

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JOHNSTON — For teachers in Catholic elementary schools, the push for greater technology education has been felt strongly in the classroom, where new resources and increasing standards for digital literacy have shaped curricula for several years. While some hands-on activities lend themselves to K–8 learning, others, like computer coding, can be difficult to introduce at a young age due to lack of grade level-appropriate resources and teacher training. A free online platform, Code.org, is looking to change that, making basic coding accessible to classrooms of all ages.

The website and nonprofit organization was launched in 2013 with the goal of promoting computer science training in schools. Sponsorships from tech companies keep the lessons free for students and teachers, who can create classroom accounts to monitor their students’ progress, while a partnership with CS4RI, a state initiative to expand computer science offerings to Rhode Island students, promotes the program to schools within the state. According to Stephen Murphy, coordinator of teaching and learning for the diocesan Catholic School Office, one of the program’s greatest strengths is its commitment to free professional development workshops for teachers.

“They go for that one-day workshop and during that workshop they’re exposed to the philosophy of coding,” said Murphy. “They’re given a full curriculum with lesson plans. They have opportunities to practice those lessons. So when they leave that one-day workshop and go back to their school, they have that computer science curriculum for Kindergarten through grade five.”

On a Tuesday morning in early December, several dozen teachers from throughout Rhode Island gathered for a workshop at St. Rocco School, Johnston, where they tested out the website and learn strategies for integrating coding activities into the curriculum. The workshop, arranged through the Catholic School Office, was attended by both private and public school teachers, and included computer science teachers as well as those seeking to integrate the program into other academic classes. According to Murphy, teachers from 29 Catholic schools in the diocese have attended Code.org workshops, opening up the resource to hundreds of Catholic school students around the state.

“The intention is that it’s not particularly a science teacher or a math teacher, but that any teacher can teach Code.org in what they’re doing,” he said. “This is one way that you get computer science that could be integrated.”

At first glance, the program appears similar to a computer game, with sections featuring colorful cartoon characters navigating an obstacle or task. The activities start off simple, asking younger students to order a set of directions in the proper sequence to move a character from one side of the screen to the other — “move forward,” “turn right,” “turn left” — and involve more complex coding as the lessons progress. Murphy says it’s an easy way for teachers to incorporate technology lessons throughout the school.

“It’s very impressive and it’s extremely user friendly,” he said. “When you think of a self-contained classroom, there are greater opportunities for a teacher to integrate.”

Karen Lico, a library, language arts and technology teacher at St. Luke School, Barrington, was among the educators who attended last month’s workshop. Since learning the program, she has begun to use Code.org with first, third, fifth and seventh graders, using the program in her academic classes and introducing it to students as a library resource.

“They are very enthusiastic about it. They’re very engaged,” she said. “It’s how this generation thinks. They think digitally.”

According to Lico, one of the challenges is the availability of devices, which limits how many students can work on the program at a given time. Though the school is in the process of equipping its students with iPads and Chromebooks, the technology is expensive, and Lico hopes to eventually have enough devices to use the program with every grade. For now, “unplugged” activities that don’t require a computer, also available on Code.org, help supplement the online lessons.

“Every level that they progress through adds new vocabulary, new concepts,” said Lico. “The nice part is I see students who struggle in certain domains in the classroom who are able to be successful here, and that’s unique.”

As computer science continues to occupy a growing role in K–8 education, online resources like Code.org help Catholic schools to adapt quickly to the technology demand. For Lico, learning the rapidly changing programs can present a challenge, but for her students, who grew up in the digital age, online learning is a natural part of the process.

“This is native to how their brain works. Good or bad, however you feel about it, it is where we’re headed,” she said.