By Maegan Murray, WSU Tri‑Cities

A group of Washington State University Tri‑Cities education students and current teachers are the first to benefit from a new course focused on how to teach computer science in the K‑12 classroom.

The course specifically focuses on introductory levels of computational thinking, fundamentals of computers and the basics of introductory programming. It also will be included in an eventual series of courses as part of a proposed computer science education endorsement at WSU Tri‑Cities.

“Computer science is a crucial component of a student’s education, which is why it is important to offer a program that will support the preparation for our schools’ teachers in this area,” said Jonah Firestone, education professor at WSU Tri‑Cities. “As a result of that, we submitted an Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction (OSPI) grant to create a program that would eventually lead to an endorsement.”

Thanks to a second grant from OSPI and matching funds from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, the WSU Tri‑Cities team was able to move forward this fall semester with a first course, Firestone said.

Developing the course

Firestone and Judy Morrison, director of the WSU Tri‑Cities College of Education, worked with PNNL computer science professionals to develop the course, in addition to holding summer institutes with current teachers to determine the types of material that would be incorporated.

Benjamin Stuermer, a PNNL software engineer and instructor for the course, said the course and eventual endorsement program has immense benefits for K‑12 education.

“I think it’s really important that we’re doing this because teachers are currently going in radically different directions with the material they are teaching students in the area of computer science,” he said.

Stuermer said this is at no fault to teachers, as they are doing the best they can with the materials they can find. But by solidifying applicable courses and an endorsement program, teachers would be better equipped with materials that are proven to be effective at various grade levels.

Introducing new concepts

The students in the course are learning the patterns by which computer coding is formed and how to develop the mindset for eventually writing code by means of sequencing certain steps in certain orders. The teachers are using a program known as “Scratch” to develop basic computer code in a visual form. Additionally, they’re learning how to write lesson plans for the material and how to break down these technical subjects into language that a young student can understand and retain.

“I work in a STEM school, so having this course is a great resource,” said Diane Hollis, a fourth-grade teacher and WSU Tri‑Cities Master’s of Education student. “It will allow me to incorporate more technology into my class and will be crucial to what we regard as the growth mindset for our students — ‘even if you can’t do it yet, you will be able to.’ My students will be learning a new skill that they can use for the rest of their life.”

Sumiyyah Jalalyar, an eighth‑grade teacher and master’s of education student at WSU Tri‑Cities, said the computational ways of thinking that she is learning through the course will serve as an immense benefit for her students in math and science.

“Having more teachers knowing about computer science and being knowledgeable about computational thinking serves as a resource for students,” she said. “It’s the direction that education is headed in for the future, so it’s a great opportunity for us as teachers to learn.”

Refining for the future

Stuermer said they will continue to refine the course, making it better for future teachers. Later, they will focus on developing further courses, he said.

Firestone said he hopes to attract teachers from a variety of subjects and fields in education for future courses, in addition to those with a background in technology, mathematics and computer science.

The “Foundations of Computational Thinking” course will be offered a second time during WSU Tri‑Cities’ spring semester, with potential tuition assistance for course participants available from the project’s grant.

For more information, contact Firestone at 509‑372‑7198 or jonah.firestone@wsu.edu.