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Why should CS Education Start at the Elementary Level?

October 7 2021 · By Ruwanthi Halwala

The emergence of newer, faster, better, and more efficient technologies in our lives has skyrocketed, and this trend is expected to keep growing. A global pandemic swept across the world in early 2020, halted businesses, crippled economies, and totally changed the way healthcare, education, and operational systems worked. Virtual and remote have become norms with active lockdowns worldwide, and with people working/learning from home - the demand for technology to support our most basic activities has soared.

Computer Science (CS) education is an important element in fortifying present education models and preparing students for this reality, and the sooner it’s integrated into school systems, the better. According to the American Psychological Association, the elementary years are when the brain starts to grow and certain skills like reading and writing start to develop. The ability to draw conclusions from scenarios and create new knowledge in the brain also happens during this time, all of which is crucial for learning. The prevalence of technology means that many kids are already exposed to computers long before the classroom, which creates more positive attitudes toward and higher rates of success in learning (Century, Ferris, & Zuo, 2020).

Numerous studies have showcased the enormous benefits of CS education. According to The Brookings Institution, notable advantages also include increased post-secondary enrollment and better problem-solving, critical, and algorithmic thinking. Students exposed to CS at the elementary school level perform much better at Reading, Math, and Science. And it’s not just at the educational level. These skills extend beyond the classroom, leading to improvements in behavior, creativity, curiosity, attitude, and engagement in addition to the palpable academic advantages. CS exposure in elementary school can also encourage and support creative expression. Such aptitudes are essential for broader and non-related job roles, aspects of personal life such as communication, or simply helpful in navigating our progressively digital world.

There has been progress with the integration of essential skills to provide the foundation needed for students to adapt to and be comfortable with this future scenario. Yet, there is still a gap in access to and provision of the skills necessary for them to truly thrive in a world dominated by Information Technology. This may be due to a lack of qualified teachers, resources/funds, infrastructure, interest, and poor CS integration into the curriculums of elementary schools. According to research by the University of Chicago, there seems to be a disproportionate focus on Mathematics and Literacy in schools, while other subjects such as Social Sciences and CS are given secondary attention. The slower transition to better incorporation of CS education into elementary school curricula stems from an underlying fear that increased focus on CS means decreased attention on Math, Reading, and Writing. However, a shift in the perspective of CS will mean that it can be amalgamated into the overall curriculum to support an interdisciplinary study, rather than adding more time to be spent on just CS education. This can be a stepping stone to a comfortable journey of holistic integration of CS into elementary schools.

Introducing CS at the elementary level can have other intangible benefits, such as increasing familiarity and cultivating interest in the subject before students move to secondary school.This increases the likelihood of students opting to study CS in middle and high school, at a university level, and potentially choosing a career in the field. In a study (by Aschbacher, Li, & Roth, 2010) published in the peer-reviewed Journal of Research in Science Teaching, high school students, scientists, and graduate students reported that their interest and careers in Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) was initiated by experiences before or during middle school. Several studies following this research have also found similar results.

There is certainly a rise in the demand for jobs in computer and Information Technology (IT). According to the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics, employment in these occupations is projected to grow 13 percent from 2020 to 2030 - faster than the average for all occupations, and is projected to add about 667,600 new jobs to the market. With significantly higher salary grades compared to other fields of work, careers in computer science have the potential to contribute positively to the national economy, improve cybersecurity, and totally transform products and services offered by other sectors.

The job prospects for CS have become a crucial tool for innovation and development. They can be a powerful mechanism to pull students out of underprivileged, low-income family/community environments and give them an opportunity to make massive strides out of poverty. CS education stimulates innovation and computational thinking and converts students into agile candidates with stronger hiring potential. Besides, with increased access, CS education can transcend boundaries and provide more opportunities for students from underprivileged, underserved, and/or marginalized communities/groups, who may identify as ‘BIPOC’, LGBTQA+, etc. It’s instrumental in creating skills that shift students from everyday consumers to future producers of technology, providing opportunities for exciting tech-driven careers across industries.

It's pretty evident that there are numerous long-term benefits of CS integration into elementary school education and school syllabi. And there’s plenty of support and resources to make the transition less nerve-wracking and help create more engagement with positive results. BootUp offers equitable access to resources on CS education to empower teachers through in-person professional development and coaching. Dedicated to creating CS programs, BootUp also provides resources, guidance, and coaching for teachers to facilitate coding at their schools. They promote and support computational thinking and computer science instruction through interactive lessons that allow students to be inspired and explore their personal interests with code.

The development of computer science programs at the elementary level offers an opportunity to address inequity and eliminate unconscious biases prevalent among students. Early learners need to be exposed to culturally responsive education where role models, representation, and accessibility are at the forefront of reaching all pupils. A Google and Gallup report found that female students have less awareness of and exposure to computer science and lower confidence that they can learn it. An even smaller percentage of girls (12%) expect to seek a career in computer science compared to boys (33%). Disparities in STEM begin to appear as young as age six. Girls pick up on social stereotypes and become convinced certain activities are not suited for them. With PD programs like BootUp, elementary teachers become confident and effective coding leaders, providing students with interest-driven and culturally relevant content that shatter latent barriers.

Other organizations such as National Science Foundation, Code.org, Microsoft MakeCode, and Scratch, also offer services and products such as free online learning courses and resources for teachers and students. Nonprofits such as Jobs for the Future and Great Schools Partnership provide resources and support diversity in access to both providing and receiving education. There are also resources available for teachers to upgrade their CS skills or learn new ones so that students can benefit even more. These include programs offered by private companies (ranging from Adobe and Coursera to Microsoft and Verizon) that provide resources and assist elementary schools that are interested in embarking on this challenging yet exciting journey that can create real positive change.

RESOURCES

Aschbacher, P. R., Li, E. & Roth, E. J. (2010). Is Science Me? High School Students’ Identities, Participation and Aspirations in Science, Engineering, and Medicine. Journal of Research in Science Teaching, 47, (5), 564–582

Century, J., Ferris, K. , & Zuo, H (n.d) Finding Time for Computer Science in the Elementary Day: Preliminary Findings of an Exploratory Study, Outlier Research & Evaluation, UChicago STEM Education at the University of Chicago

Century, J., Ferris, K.A. & Zuo, H. (2020). Finding Time For Computer Science In the Elementary School Day: A Quasi-Experimental Study of a Transdisciplinary Problem-Based Learning Approach. International Journal of STEM Education, 7 (20)https://doi.org/10.1186/s40594-020-00218-3

Code.org (2015) Is Learning Computer Science Linked to Improved Learning in Other Subjects? Retrieved from: https://blog.code.org/post/125429946375/cs-other-subjects

CS1C (n.d) The Importance of Computer Science Education. Retrieved from: https://sites.uci.edu/cs1c/importance-of-computer-science-education/

Education and Behavior (n.d), The Benefits of Teaching Coding to Elementary School Students. Retrieved from: https://educationandbehavior.com/benefits-of-teaching-coding-to-elementary-school-children/

Getting Smart Staff, (2018), 35 Competency-Based Education Advocacy & Research Organizations. Retrieved from: https://www.gettingsmart.com/2018/07/02/competency-based-education-advocacy-research-organizations/

Miller, A. D. (2014) Why We Must Have Computer Science in More Schools And Classrooms. Retrieved from:https://www.forbes.com/sites/oracle/2014/11/14/why-we-must-have-computer-science-in-more-schools-and-classrooms/?sh=1d9494df3241

The White House: Office of the Press Secretary (2016) FACT SHEET: President Obama Announces Computer Science For All Initiative. Retrieved from: https://obamawhitehouse.archives.gov/the-press-office/2016/01/30/fact-sheet-president-obama-announces-computer-science-all-initiative-0

United States Bureau of Labor Statistics (2021) Computer and Information Technology Occupations. Retrieved from: https://www.bls.gov/ooh/computer-and-information-technology/home.htm

Vegas, E. & Fowler, B. (2020) What Do We Know About the Expansion Of K-12 Computer Science Education? A Review of the Evidence, The Brookings Institution

Gallup and Google. Current Perspectives and Continuing Challenges in Computer Science Education in US K-12 Schools (2020)

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