To help students develop the skills needed to succeed in today’s world, more states are creating or adopting computer science standards for elementary students. While some educators may feel the pressure of adding yet another task to the school day is too much, many recognize developing computer science skills will help students solve problems and succeed in all subject areas.
The following are great ways in which computer science skills (and the associated standards) can be incorporated into elementary school classroom instruction with minimal impact on classroom time.
Help students transition from consumers to creators
Much of students’ experience with a computer is as a consumer: a consumer of information through web searches, a consumer of entertainment through games and media, etc. Many of the computer science standards, however, are geared toward helping students understand the value of using computers to help them solve problems. To help students make that transition, they will need to practice these skills. Some activities that can help students see computers as tools to solve problems and not just devices from which they consume information include:
- Gathering data in a spreadsheet and graphing the result
- Writing a story or creating a poster in a word processor
- Creating a presentation on a book they read or to explain a science or social studies topic
These activities can help students see computers as a useful tool not only for consuming information but for creating work products. The following are some of the CSTA standards that these types of activities would address:
K-2.1A-CS-01 Select and operate appropriate software to perform a variety of tasks and recognize that users have different needs and preferences for the technology they use.
K-2.1A-DA-06 Collect and present the same data in various visual formats.
K-2.1A-DA-07 Identify and describe patterns in data visualizations, such as charts or graphs, to make predictions.
3-5.1B-DA-06 Organize and present collected data visually to highlight relationships and support a claim.
3-5.1B-DA-07 Use data to highlight or propose cause-and-effect relationships, predict outcomes, or communicate an idea.
Help students develop the mental mindset of a computer scientist
There are several critical mindsets or abilities every good computer scientist uses regularly. These include decomposition, pattern recognition, abstraction, algorithm design, and debugging or learning through trial. The following are some simple examples of how each can be incorporated into daily instruction:
- Decomposition – When assigning larger projects, have the students as a class determine what smaller tasks or problems need to be solved in order to complete the project.
- Pattern recognition – After explaining the value of pattern recognition, plan a game with your students, encouraging them to identify and recognize patterns or tasks that could be automated and repeated easily with a computer or even mechanical device controlled by a computer.
- Abstraction – Have the students practice identifying relevant and irrelevant data they have available to solve a problem. At older grades, provide students with a complex set of steps and have the students identify ways to simplify the solution, so that the steps can be used for more than the specific case provided.
- Algorithm design – Have the students create a step-by-step set of instructions for something they do every day. This could be anything from getting ready for school to a classroom procedure they follow regularly. To make it more complex, have them outlines steps for a process that branches based on various conditions.
- Debugging and learning from trial – Have students check the each other’s algorithms and try to identify problems in the steps or ways to improve the algorithm.
While these activities may be small, they can help students develop the mindset of a computer scientist. The following are some of the CSTA standards that these types of activities would address:
K-2.1A-AP-08 Model daily processes by creating and following algorithms (sets of step-by-step instructions) to complete tasks.
K-2.1A-AP-11 Decompose (break down) the steps needed to solve a problem into a precise sequence of instructions.
3-5.1B-AP-11 Decompose (break down) problems into smaller, manageable subproblems to facilitate the program development process.
3-5.1B-AP-08 Compare and refine multiple algorithms for the same task and determine which is the most appropriate.
3-5.1B-AP-15 Test and debug (identify and fix errors) a program or algorithm to ensure it runs as intended.
Helping students see computers as tools of creation rather than just tools for consumption can serve to expand their view of the world’s possibilities and learn to leverage computers to create solutions to the problems placed before them. Helping students develop the mindset of a computer scientist will not only encourage them to be more effective in using computers to solve problems but better problem solvers in general in all aspects of their lives. More importantly, however, it can aid them in seeing themselves as creators and solvers with technology and help them become confident making contributions to the world.