“IF I clap three times; THEN my robot will move forward,” and Other Things Kids Say When Learning with CS

We had a chance to see P.S. 31 in Queens yesterday, alongside our friends at the Robin Hood Learning + Technology Fund, to see first-hand how our Computer Science for All work is producing real results even at the elementary school level.

And wow, were we impressed!

P.S. 31 is part of the first cohort of 11 schools to participate in the pilot year of SEPjr, a CS4All teacher development track which puts elementary schools on a path to integrate CS at every grade level.

Our visit began with an enlightening conversation with Principal Terry Graybow. She told us – and yes, you could see the pride in her eyes – about how the teachers, students, and parents in her school had all embraced computer science. Even better, they saw it as more than just a skill set, but rather, as tools to be used across every subject.

It was clear she meant it. As soon as you enter the building, there’s a “Code Café” where students can choose to practice their coding skills during lunch when the weather makes it impossible to go outside to play. In the hallways, there was prose about algorithms and signs encouraging passersby to download the school’s app.

After our quick orientation, we hiked upstairs to the fourth floor, which also happened to be where one can find Ms. Westhall’s computer lab. At first glance, you could easily confuse the place for a tech start-up, but in fact, it was full of kids designing their own computer games.

When we spoke to the kids who were willing to look away from their screens for even a minute, we heard some common themes. “This is fun,” “I’m so proud of what I’m making,” and “I think it would be cool to do this when I grow up.” In an experience far different from what any of us could recall from childhood, where “computer class” meant following along with Reader Rabbit, solving problems with Math Blaster, finding Carmen Sandiego on a map, or learning to type from Mavis Beacon, these students were thinking, and creating in new ways. The hardest part of the period was getting the kids to save their work and get ready to leave so the next group could come in. They were totally hooked on learning.

Next, we had a chance to peek in on Ms. Mischner’s first grade class. If you’re still with me, you might be thinking the same thing I was – “computer science in first grade?” You better believe it.

Ms. Mischner made it a point to get her kids comfortable with thinking critically using the technology tools available to them. When we walked in the room, her students were “debugging” their writing. And this wasn’t just today. They create algorithms during “how to” units. They learn about conditionals, like “IF I clap three times; THEN my robot will move forward,” or “IF I fall down; THEN I can call my mom.” The walls had definitions of terms like programs, loops, events, debugging, and of course one word that applies regardless of how tech-saavy you might be – persistence.

Not thinking we could be more fascinated, we headed over to Ms. Ciccotelli’s art studio. The students were drawing the all familiar caterpillar, thanks to everyone’s favorite children’s author Eric Carle, but their critters were a bit different. Each section didn’t have watercolor like you might expect, but instead logical patterns like what you might find in sequencing in basic CS code. Sequencing isn’t only relevant to coding, but it also helps with reading comprehension, which we were told is an important point for many parents – the value of computer science education extends well beyond a computer screen.

We were thrilled to spend the day seeing hands-on how our elementary schools are successfully making CS part of the curriculum. CS4All is the largest scale public school implementation of high quality computer science education in the nation, and that was clearly exemplified at P.S. 31. With CS4All, we’re encouraging equity with a broader availability of the tools students need to succeed, whether it be technical skills like coding, or soft skills like logical approaches to problem solving, working in teams, adaptability, and communication. As Principal Graybow pointed out, this is a way for students to take ownership of their learning, because even in a school with a higher percentage of English language learners and students with disabilities, everyone is able to engage with computer science. This is groundbreaking work, and because CS4All is so intently focused on training today’s teachers – 5,000 of the DOE’s 75,000 –  to carry on this work year after year, we’ll see it continue for decades to come.

If you’re interested in learning more about the CS4ALL program, visit www.cs4all.nyc. And if you like what you read, consider joining our ever-growing list of generous funders who support NYC’s future leaders.

David Belsky