LINCOLN, Neb. (AP) — The weekend is looming large on a Friday afternoon at Humann Elementary — the nearness of freedom palpable — when Jason Rushing poses a question to his fourth-grade computer class.
The question — about a number line and an algorithm for goodness' sake — seems about as likely to capture the attention of a bunch of 9- and 10-year-olds as a plateful of cooked peas, the Lincoln Journal Star (http://bit.ly/1ieRNp6 ) reported.
Except that it does.
Because it's a puzzle of sorts: figuring out how things fit together to come up with the sum of every number on a line from one to 200. The teacher admits it's a tough puzzle, that it would take pages of addition problems to find the answer, that guessing — which nearly every student tries — is fruitless.
"Or," he tells them, "you could use computational thinking and break it down into pieces you can do and look for patterns."
Because this is no math class, it's computer class and the lesson is about the process, about learning the art of sussing out patterns and dividing big problems into solvable chunks, of using data and sequences to make computers do what you want them to do. It's a lesson in logic.
This fall, Lincoln Public Schools is rolling out a revamped elementary computer curriculum that emphasizes computer science — and coding — principles.
Kent Steen, LPS computer science curriculum specialist, said the goal is to expose all students to the basics of coding and computer science — including robotics — along with digital literacy and digital media arts.
Exposing all students to computer science at a young age, by showing them it's something they all can do, will help reduce the gender and racial minority gap in such fields, he said.
To that end, the district has entered into a partnership with code.org, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing access to computer science by women and minorities and promoting computer science as part of the core curriculum in schools.
The nonprofit was launched in 2013 with an event called Hour of Code — taking one hour to expose as many students to computer science as possible. Most LPS schools and some parochial schools participated, the Chamber of Commerce held an event, too — and Lincoln ranked 15th in participation worldwide, Steen said.
There's another citywide Hour of Code event being planned for December, Steen said, although LPS students are now getting more than just an hour of coding and computer science.
All grade school computer classes — like the fourth-grade class at Humann — now focus on five broad practices of computational thinking: Creativity, collaboration, communication, persistence and problem-solving.
The K-5 partnership with code.org gives LPS access to all the group's professional development and curriculum materials, including online courses, Steen said. Those materials are used with other curriculum materials, he said.
"The courses are really the big deal for us," said Steen, who is qualified through code.org to train teachers.
The curriculum includes both online and "unplugged lessons" — lessons like the one at Humann that teach concepts away from the computer that students then apply to coding exercises.
In Rushing's classroom, the answer to the number problem on the board seems unsolvable, long periods of addition stretching before the students.
But wait. What happens, Rushing asks, if they add just two numbers, the first and last on the number line? 1 + 200. That's 201. So is the sum of the next numbers in line: 2 + 199. And 3 + 198.
And now a pattern emerges and hands are popping up like dandelions in the front yard.
"What's the answer to the big blow-your-mind problem?" Rushing asks.
It's 20,100, the class deduces with Rushing's help: there are 100 possible pairs of numbers that all equal 201. Multiply 201 x 100, and voila.
"We took something there's no way we could do in 30 seconds or less," Rushing tells his students. "We found a pattern, found a way to group things, to repeat it, and we found the answer."
Although this is the first year that computer science has become a required part of the elementary computer classroom, some teachers like Rushing already were using the code.org materials.
Rushing likes what they teach, and was surprised at how the subject captures students' attention.
"They're loving it and they're eating it up," he said. "They see the value in it."
The lessons teach more than just coding principles, he said. They give students a chance to think critically, to figure out problems. That tends to get lost in today's world of education standards and tests, which require teachers to move through material quickly, Rushing said.
"That's the most important thing it's teaching them, to think for themselves, to problem-solve, to be creative."
Code.org offers lots of statistics to back up its mission: 583,155 open computer jobs nationwide — 3,420 of those in Nebraska; and just 59,764 computer science college graduates nationwide, 557 of those in Nebraska.
The demand for high-paying jobs is important, Steen said, but the value of teaching computer science goes beyond that. Schools want all their students to learn to write, he said. It doesn't mean they'll all be authors.
"In almost any area, being able to have the problem-solving skills, to have some knowledge of coding concepts will only be a benefit to them in almost any career area they go into," he said.
Back in the classroom, the Humann fourth-graders have flipped open their laptops and are solving another problem. This is a game, a problem-solving, computer coding game. With zombies. And sunflowers.
Fourth-graders Carter Mick and Joey Walter like the assignment. Carter says it makes him think. Joey, whose dad fixes computers for a living, sees purpose in figuring out how to make the zombie eat the sunflower, in just five steps.
"It's my future," he said.
Information from: Lincoln Journal Star, http://www.journalstar.com
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