Katy Scowcroft teaches an integrated computer science lesson at Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz
Katy Scowcroft teaches an integrated computer science lesson at Gault Elementary School in Santa Cruz last week.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
K-12 Education

Sewing, rock erosion and coding: How some elementary students are learning about computer science

For annual Computer Science Education Week, schools across Santa Cruz County focused on how to improve learning and equity in computer science. Lookout sat in on a lesson to get a deeper look into how computer science is being integrated into core curriculum at the elementary level.

Second-grade students in Katy Scowcroft’s classroom at Gault Elementary School held smooth, black rocks or rough, grey rocks in their hands last Wednesday morning.

They fidgeted on the ground and whispered to each other as Scowcroft asked the entire classroom, “What do you notice? What do you wonder?”

She had just finished explaining the big question for the day’s science lab lesson: Why are some rocks at the bottom of the creek rough and others smooth?

“You’re the scientists, so you’re going to be solving some problems,” she said.

While this doesn’t immediately appear to be a lesson revolving around computer science, it was exactly that. And it takes a teacher trained in integrating computer science lessons to do it well. When Scowcroft started to receive training on teaching lessons like this last year, she was terrified.

“I have no background in it and found it to be really intimidating,” she said.

Gault Elementary observes a smooth rock during an integrated computer science lesson
A student at Gault Elementary observes a smooth rock during an integrated computer science lesson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

Lessons like this are becoming more and more prevalent at Gault Elementary and Branciforte Middle School, thanks to a National Science Foundation grant. Erin Asamoto, a computer science coach who is leading the “Computer Science for All” grant curriculum, said the grant has several strategies to increase access to all students, including integrating computer science lessons into core curriculum, training teachers so they feel confident giving lessons and engaging families. Asamoto’s specialty is helping teachers create and give these lessons.

“The hope is to reach more student populations instead of isolating it into one specific class,” she said.

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In Santa Cruz County, and across the state and country, student access to computer science is limited and varies significantly for different groups. While access has improved, there is still a lot of work to do. The Santa Cruz County Office of Education hosted a series of events last week, for global Computer Science Education Week, in an effort to encourage teachers and students to learn more about computer science.

Limited access to computer science


In 2018, just 35% of high schools nationally offered computer science, compared to 51% this year, according to data from Code.org, a nonprofit working to expand access to computer science across the country and world.

Still, when looking at what’s happening in 37 states, only 4.7% of high school students are enrolled in foundational computer science courses. When breaking down the data at a deeper level, considering specific groups, Santa Cruz County reflects trends happening nationally: girls and Latinos are underrepresented in computer science.

In a survey carried out by Santa Cruz City School officials five years ago, a total of 631 fifth and seventh graders were asked about their experience with computer science.

“White students were significantly more likely to say they have learned computer science, are interested in programming, and to have a family member that uses computer science in their job,” researcher Jill Denner wrote in the NSF grant proposal about the survey. “And while girls were just as interested in learning programming as boys, boys were significantly more likely to have learned it.”

Denner, a senior research scientist at Scotts Valley-based education research nonprofit Education, Training and Research, has been partnering with Asamoto, local school districts and organizations on how to improve access. A similar large-scale survey is currently underway.

Gault Elementary scrapes rocks during an integrated computer science lesson
A student at Gault Elementary scrapes rocks during an integrated computer science lesson.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

First, teachers need the proper training


For the NSF grant directed at Gault Elementary and Branciforte Middle schools, Denner’s research has been focusing on how to help teachers become more comfortable with teaching the material. She said it’s too soon to know how students have been impacted by the curriculum.

“Our focus of our research is really on how to prepare the teachers to integrate it into their classes,” she said. “What does it take to get teachers, particularly in K-8, who are not trained in computer science, to actually take on some computer science and teach it in that class.”

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Last year, one project Asamoto helped teachers carry out for all fourth and fifth grade students in the Santa Cruz City Schools district was creating a circuit for LED light-up masks. Asamoto said through using activities such as sewing and creating the masks, the students become familiar with the basics of computer science.

Using hands-on projects and topics that a wide variety of students can relate to, teachers help students learn vocabulary, like algorithms or coding, and computational thinking skills. Take the rock in the creek bed example.

What did the rocks have to do with computer science?


After Scowcroft’s students had a few minutes to observe the rocks, she directed their attention to another set of rocks. She showed them three different rocks on a black piece of paper, with dust from each rock.

Scowcroft asked them to talk about what they observed from the rocks and she avoided using words — such as dust and scrape — but rather asked them to describe what they saw and come up with the words themselves.

Next, she asked them if they remembered what the word algorithm was.

“Remember, [an algorithm] is a step-by-step set of instructions for how to complete a task,” she said.

The students nodded in recognition, and she said they needed to come up with an algorithm to be able to turn the rocks into what was next to it on that paper — or dust. She was still avoiding using specific words so they would come up with the language and process themselves.

At the end of the lesson, she asked the students to talk about what happened when they scraped the rocks against each other.

“So, if rocks collide, then they make dust,” she asked, repeating their guesses. “What’s another ‘if ... then’ you can say with these rocks?”

The students then came up with more “if ... then” scenarios before Scowcroft said these statements are like cause-and-effect scenarios.

That’s called conditional logic. So our programmers who have to code and create algorithms have to use conditional logic when they’re using computer science. If you do something, then something else happens. You scientists used conditional logic today.

“That’s called conditional logic. So our programmers who have to code and create algorithms have to use conditional logic when they’re using computer science,” she said. “If you do something, then something else happens. You scientists used conditional logic today.”

Scowcroft said felt she had no background or experience in computer science until she realized that computer science concepts are occurring in the classroom every day. She recalled the example of conditional logic, how classrooms are very often using that while teaching.

“I do feel like a silver lining of distance learning and teaching virtually was being more open to incorporating computer science into the curriculum,” she said, adding that coaching from Asamoto helped her feel comfortable teaching the material.

Scowcroft and Asamoto said the power of the lesson comes from making what could be big, scary words like algorithm more familiar.

“It’s stealthy, you hear the words, but what they’re doing is so much more computer science,” said Asamoto. “Instead of just front-loading and saying, ‘Now we’re going to do computer science,’ and making it feel as if it’s something different and foreign to students, it’s showing something we do every single day in our lives.”

More efforts in the county to expand access


Jason Borgen, the chief technology officer with the Santa Cruz County Office of Education, said the county is working with Denner and the grant team to understand how that work could be implemented countywide. Borgen and Faris Sabbah, the Santa Cruz County superintendent, said their office and school districts across the county are working on ways to increase access to computer science.

Their office received a $1 million grant two years ago that is being used to run a computer science curriculum aimed at helping high school students begin to develop skills for a future in the industry, specifically cyber security. Cabrillo College, Scotts Valley Unified School District, Santa Cruz City Schools and San Lorenzo Valley School District are partnering in the project.

There are currently 79,368 open computing jobs with an average salary of more than $115,000 in California, according to Code.org.

“Santa Cruz County has over 200 startups,” said Borgen. “We want to grow these companies and there’s a lot of opportunities.”