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Jump-Starting K-5 Computer-Science Education

OSTP’s Tom Kalil spoke with John Pearce of MV GATE, a California non-profit that is bringing CS education to schools in an innovative way.

Earlier this year, the President announced the Computer Science for All initiative, an ambitious all-hands-on-deck effort to giving every student in America the opportunity to learn computer science. As part of the initiative, the President is calling on governors, mayors, business leaders, philanthropists, tech entrepreneurs, and engaged citizens to lead a broad effort to make computer science (CS) available for every student.

John Pearce is Director and Co-founder of MV GATE, a California non-profit that is working to bring coding and CS education to students across 14 schools, and engaging families in the process. MV GATE’s “community-powered learning” model, which is centered around the power of parents to jumpstart their child’s interest in computer science, uses “Hour of Code Night” as a first step a school can take to bring computer science to their students.

TOM KALIL (TK): How does MV GATE partner with elementary schools to get coding and computer science education going?

JOHN PEARCE (JP): We start at each school by mobilizing the school community with a whole-school evening family event called “Hour of Code Night,” in which kids and their parents do their first hour of coding together. It turns out that when kids start to learn to code alongside their parents, with a hundred or more families and classmates in the room, it creates an appreciation and demand for coding education. Using online learning resources, we aim to provide a dynamic learning experience for kids and their parents, together as a school community. It’s an engaging event, and invariably kids and families are eager for more.

TK: How can schools follow up on that event?

JP: Happily, we’re in a golden age of free online computer science curricula—from Khan Academy to to Google’s CS First and so much more—and we have found that many schools and principals are eager to provide coding education. We also found, however, that schools are overwhelmed with other demands on their school day and teachers, so we created a partnership model to help overcome these challenges. After “Hour of Code Night,” the school provides otherwise idle space and computers after the school day, and announces programs to the school community. Parents and community-based instructors, including high school and even middle school “Code Coaches,” form teaching teams for classes that teach beginning coding and CS skills to K-5 students. Classes use readily-available online curricula, and are simple and convenient for families—right at school, and right after school. Our goal is to complement whatever the school offers during the day, in free or scholarship-based programs and classes.

TK: With all this free online curricula, why can’t screen-oriented kids just learn on their own?

JP: A few kids do, but very few. The latest experience with online learning has shown us that for many students, there is a missing link: social context and instructional support are indispensable. This is especially true for little kids. Thankfully, there is still nothing like playing with friends, pride in accomplishment, learning from teachers, and being encouraged by parents. We make sure to build all these into classes, including informing parents of progress so they can continue to participate with their kids at home.

TK: You’re teaching coding and CS to kids K-5? Is that too young?

JP: Not at all. We strongly agree that too much screen time in the first few years of life can be damaging to kids’ cognitive development, but by kindergarten it’s vital to start to make digital logic intuitive, to show young minds that an algorithm is simply a list of instructions to a computer, that they can command, not just consume, on-screen experience. This will be a cornerstone of nearly anything they undertake in life, and digital illiteracy will be a significant deficiency in the future. Also, and no less important, it is increasingly clear that the best way to break the cycle of the gender and socio-economic digital divide is to do so early. We already see dramatic reductions in some girls’ participation as early as third grade—earlier learning with appropriate activities and skills is a way to change this. Early mastery and the fun of creation are clearly the best ways to change the digital learning trajectory for girls and less-advantaged kids.

TK: What are you doing to help parents in other communities get started?

JP: MV GATE’s next goal is to enable any elementary school in the country to put on their own “Hour of Code Night,” and to help them jump-start coding and CS education for their kids, as we’ve done in our area. Putting on an “Hour of Code Night” is not difficult, and any motivated school principal, parent-teacher association, or parent can help make it happen at their school, now, and at no cost. We plan on moving every step of putting on an “Hour of Code Night” to a simple, web-based, turn-key process. We are working with early-adopter schools now to help them put on “Hour of Code Nights” right away, and as we build the web-based turn-key program, we’ll be reaching out to schools nationwide. By fall of 2016, we hope hundreds or even thousands of elementary schools will put on “Hour of Code Nights” and take action for coding and CS education for their kids.

Tom Kalil is Deputy Director for Technology and Innovation in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy.