Curry School implements computer science into local elementary school classrooms

Professors in the Curry School create project-based computer science curriculum for fifth graders

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Over the past year and a half that this project has been in effect, the students addressed problems surrounding water runoff in their local environment.

Sophie Roehse | Cavalier Daily

Educational curriculums nationwide are beginning to incorporate computer science into classrooms due to its prevalence across various career disciplines. Recognizing this growth, Curry School Assoc. Prof. Jennifer Chiu and her teammates — including Assoc. Profs. Sarah Fick and Leidy Klotz — sought to integrate computer science into the fifth grade classrooms of Walker Upper Elementary School with funding from the National Science Foundation.

“It really comes out of a national push for science classrooms to look more like what scientists do,” Chiu said. “A large part of what scientists do is model the natural environment using computer models, and so we really wanted to push on that aspect and provide opportunities for students to be able to engage in the world of scientists.”

Chiu was initially inspired when working with researchers from Scientific Research Institute International and Vanderbilt University, who were already conducting studies in computational modeling at high schools. Chiu explored the idea of expanding to upper-elementary and middle school levels, particularly fifth grade.

Over the past year and a half that this project has been in effect, the students addressed problems surrounding water runoff in their local environment. Last year, the first project involved students designing a playground that wouldn’t flood. This year, students are looking at runoff within the scope of various surfaces and their absorption properties.

“They are engineering different surfaces that still meet the needs of the school and them as students but reduce the amount of water that’s running off through increasing the absorption into the ground,” Fick said.

The team felt that water runoff was a comprehensive theme for the project, as it would initially be a challenge for the students but was ultimately relatable.

“Students would be able to investigate water runoff in their local environment,” said Chiu. “We want to make sure students feel like science has a place at their school, like in their immediate environment. It’s not something that only people at universities or scientists in science labs do — they can actively be a part of it.”

While this project is formative for the fifth grade students of Walter Upper Elementary School, it also serves as a crucial research study for Chiu and her team to assess methods of pedagogically integrating science, engineering and computer science into an elementary school classroom.

Chiu said that this project will engage students in a way so that they are not only familiar with the content knowledge but are also able to plan an investigation or generate some kind of computational solution to a problem of human impact on the environment.

“How can we be able to not only support students to engage in science more authentically, but then actually create the assessment to hopefully say students are making gains towards performance expectations?” Chiu said. 

The performance expectations she refers to are the new national standards which are set by the Next Generation Science Standards. The team ensured that by integrating this project into classrooms, the curriculum was still aligned with the fifth grade expectations for the Virginia Standards of Learning but also met the high performance standards expected by the NGSS, which Virginia is in the process of adopting.

As a part of the integration process, the teachers who would be incorporating this computer science component into their classrooms needed to undergo professional development training to ensure they met the students’ learning goals for the year. 

“Part of the professional development I did with the teachers was helping them work through the problems of coding and learn the coding environment — [to] figure out what are some of the pitfalls students are likely to have and what are some strategies for helping them to debug,” said Fick, who took the lead on the professional development aspect of the study. 

The team hopes to explore ways to productively incorporate authentic science experiences into classrooms.

“We want to help students see environmental problems in their local community and start to think about … ways to engineer solutions and really think about their role as citizens and users of the environment,” said Fick. “Then also in terms of a research focus, we want to help create some ideas about how you integrate science, engineering and computer science into upper-elementary classrooms and middle school.”

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