#136 – Computer Science Education Week and the Importance of Computational Thinking, with Kiki Prottsman

Unpacking Education November 30, 2022 38 min

Computer Science Education Week 2022 (CSEdWeek) is celebrated during the week of December 5–11. It’s an opportunity to highlight the importance of computer science education in our K–12 schools and to provide students with opportunities to experience and explore coding and develop computational thinking skills. The CSEdWeek website describes the event as “an annual call to action to inspire K–12 students to learn computer science, advocate for equity, and celebrate the contribution of students, teachers, and partners to the field.

To provide insights about CSEdWeek, computational thinking, and Hour of Code, we are joined by Kiki Prottsman, an author, educator, entrepreneur, and leader in the area of computer science.

Paul Beckermann
PreK–12 Digital Learning Specialist
Rena Clark
STEM Facilitator and Digital Learning Specialist
Dr. Winston Benjamin
Social Studies and English Language Arts Facilitator

Computers are incredibly fast, accurate, and stupid. On the other hand, a well-trained operator as compared with a computer is incredibly slow, inaccurate, and brilliant.

Herbert Daniel Couture Jr. and Marion Keyes, authors of A Paper Industry Application of Systems Engineering and Direct Digital Control

The Future Is Now 

During our conversation about computer science education in K–12 schools, Kiki optimistically says, “Students are going to start learning younger, so they will start understanding better, using their young imaginations, and then coming up to change the world as they grow up with all of these things that to us all still seems like the future, but the future is not that far away.” She also emphasizes the importance of building up student ownership in the field and developing their confidence. “If the students don’t come out the other side believing in themselves,” she says, “We’re doing it wrong.”

Tune in to this episode to hear more about how you can bring computer science into your classroom to both celebrate Computer Science Education Week and empower your students with computational thinking skills that will benefit them their entire lives. Here are some highlights from our conversation:

  • Kiki’s Start in Computer Science: When she was home sick from school, her father gave her a book on BASIC, put her in front of a computer, and said, “Here, figure it out.” She ended up writing a program that day to identify her family members by the color of their eyes and hair. It was the catalyst she needed to get started on her own computer science pathway. She reflects, saying, “I’m a problem solver. I like poking at things. I don’t like being told no. And I think that is probably where it all began.”
  • The Importance of CS in Schools: There are benefits to having CS in schools at a couple of different levels. On one hand, tech jobs tend to be some of the best-paying jobs in the world. Beyond that, computer science helps students develop critical lifelong skills. Kiki points out, “The skills you need to program are the very same skills you need to be successful in anything.” She adds, “I can’t see a single reason why kids shouldn’t learn that as young as possible to help them with school for the rest of their lives.”
  • Computational Thinking: Kiki helps us break down the four key areas of computational thinking: decomposition, pattern recognition (or pattern matching), abstraction, and algorithmic thinking. She provides meaningful examples to better understand each area and explains why these skills are so important. When students own these skills, they become much better problem solvers.
  • Make It Fun and Start Early: Two key ways that schools can attract traditionally underrepresented groups of students to the field of computer science is to make it fun and introduce it early. Kiki adds, “In my heart, I believe that at the elementary school grade level, you need to be focusing on the self-efficacy. You need to be helping kids see: This is fun. This is useful. This is something I’m good at.”
  • The Middle School Years: Kiki’s research has informed her that we can’t push middle school students too hard during these formative years. If we force computer science upon them, they will often turn away. Instead, we need to offer them opportunities rather than requirements. She explains how a strong foundation in elementary school will serve students well. She says, “If you gave them that love, that belief in themselves, that education young, they will come back. They’ll come back to it in high school. They’ll come back to it in college because they’ll have fond memories of it, and they’ll believe that they can do it. And who wants to spend every day doing something they don’t believe they can do?”
  • Hour of Code: Kiki was involved in Hour of Code from the beginning, and she provides us with some context and history. She also explains some of the great resources that are freely available and can be used with students. She describes the impact of students engaging in these activities: “Kids are seeing activities that matter to them, and they’re getting that first exposure to computer science in a way that is friendly, and bite-sized, and fun, and that helps spark that love and helps the teachers see that their students can do it, helps parents see that their students can do it, and it really helps bolster the entire movement for everybody.”
  • Fitting It In: Teachers are already stretched thin with a mounting number of standards and expectations. Despite this challenge, there are ways to work coding into almost any classroom. Kiki explains that it doesn’t have to take a long time to teach the coding skills. “There are so many platforms now that the kids can pick up in a day,” she says. There are also many curriculum maps that match coding lessons to traditional content areas. Teachers can avoid the lesson-planning step by finding something ready-made that fits what they already do. Kiki talks about how well Hour of Code works for this introduction into diverse classrooms. She says, “Hour of Code is that moment to say, ‘I’m going to search these 1-hour-long activities by the class I think I can work them into and find something that will work out for my classroom,’ and once you realize you can do that for basically any grade level and basically any subject, then it becomes a lot easier to justify trying it and maybe committing to it.”
  • Keeping It Going: Beyond Hour of Code, there are lots of free coding tools available online, including materials from Microsoft’s MakeCode Arcade and Intro to CS classes, Micro:bit Educational Foundation’s micro:bit, Code.org, and the Computer Science Teachers Association (CSTA). When using these, the teacher doesn’t need to be an expert. In fact, it’s okay to admit that you don’t know how to do it either. This can actually be empowering to students. Kiki suggests that you should be honest. “Tell them you’re learning along with them and ask them questions.” Instead of being the holder of answers, you can be the encourager and prompter.
  • On the Horizon: More complex topics, like cryptocurrency and artificial intelligence, are being introduced to students at younger ages, and students are being given more voice and choice in their coding experiences.
  • Books: There are lots of great books that can be used to introduce coding to younger students, including the Secret Coders series of graphic novels, where characters use coding and computational thinking to solve mysteries.

Guiding Questions

If you are listening to the podcast with your instructional team or would like to explore this topic more deeply, here are guiding questions to prompt your reflection:

  • What is your background and familiarity with computer science and coding?
  • What are the benefits of teaching computer science in K–12 schools?
  • Which element of computational thinking do you believe fits best into your classroom?
  • How might we attract traditionally underrepresented groups of students to the computer science fields?
  • How can you introduce an Hour of Code into your classroom?
  • How might you continue to reinforce coding and computational thinking in your classroom beyond an Hour of Code or CSEdWeek?
  • What can you do with your students to recognize CSEdWeek?

Extend Your Learning