How Code.org lowers the barriers for teachers to bring computer science to their classrooms

About the series: “What Does a Code.org Classroom Look Like?” is a series of blog posts exploring the features that make Code.org professional development and curricula unique and engaging for both teachers and students. This is blog post three of four. Read the first post here and the second post here.

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Advocacy and awareness campaigns like the Hour of Code are broad-reaching, well-known Code.org efforts in our mission to increase access to computer science and participation by traditionally underrepresented students. Code.org teachers know, however, that some of the deepest-reaching work is in the classroom.

By designing curricula and classroom experiences that lower barriers to access and remove stereotypes, Code.org empowers teachers to bring CS to all students. Accessibility, representation and equity are core tenets of every part of the Code.org classroom experience.

Our curriculum and platform are free to use so schools can try it risk-free, and all of our courses are designed to work as introductory courses because we know there’s no guarantee a student has previous CS experience. We test all new lesson plans and activities in a wide variety of classrooms, to make sure they’re appropriate and engaging for all students. And we create promotional and instructional videos that feature a diverse cast of artists, musicians, athletes, and computer science professionals, because it’s important for students to see that computer science is for everyone.

Code.org is free for anyone to use, and always will be

Sheila Dartez was teaching subjects like business and finance when she stumbled on Code.org and loved the materials. Before becoming a teacher, she had worked as a programmer, and was looking to offer more substantive computer science education to her students because she knew how important it was. She started teaching with the Computer Science Principles curriculum, and eventually took a workshop. These days, Dartez, who teaches middle and high school in Greenville, South Carolina, also facilitates Code.org professional learning workshops, working with other educators who want to bring computer science to their students.

“A lot of computer classes are solo, but there is something unique about going through the puzzles [in pairs],” she says. “And the curriculum is different enough in each of the units that one student shines in one area but another shines in another.”

One of the main reasons it was so easy for Sheila Dartez and 200,000 other teachers to get started teaching computer science with Code.org is that both the platform and the curriculum are free for anyone to use. Because our mission is to make sure that all students have access to a great computer science education, this will always be the case. We recognize that budgeting constraints, particularly at underfunded schools, are a huge barrier to access. By making the curriculum and platform free, schools can try it out risk-free and ensure all students, at all schools, can learn computer science.

We meet students where they are

“Code.org offers things for so many different levels,” says Dartez. “So if you have someone who is ahead of other students, or if you need to differentiate for someone who doesn’t speak any English, it’s easy [to find something].”

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Code.org offers language support in thirty languages, including complete translations for Computer Science Fundamentals in Hindi and Spanish.

At Code.org, we make sure students at all levels are challenged. At the same time, we treat every course like an introductory course, because we know there is no guarantee that students have taken previous courses.

In practice, this means setting up shared experiences at the beginning of the course, so that everyone starts on a level playing field. Computer Science Discoveries, for example, begins with a problem-solving activity that challenges student groups to build aluminum boats that will hold as many pennies as possible. The activity encourages students to both collaborate to design a solution to a challenge, and to iterate to improve on that solution. It’s the sort of problem-solving used throughout the rest of the course, and introducing students to it on day one gets them all on the same page as early as possible.

Many teachers told us that students who struggle in other courses, either academically or behaviorally, tend to excel in their computer science course. “One thing I’ll say, some of the little boys, they get in trouble in class, they don’t sit still, those are my absolute best coders,” says Demetra Adams, who teaches elementary and middle school students in Eight-Mile, Alabama. “I’m still surprised every time, when I realize how amazing they are.”

Deby Ranft, who teaches elementary and middle school students in rural Dayton, Nevada, said something similar. “I think for some kids it was the collaboration, being able to talk and walk through it. For other kids, it was ‘I’m really good at this, and I’m not so good at other things, so this is exciting’. For other kids, it was ‘I’m playing on the computer, and look I’m making this duck do a dab!’”

We don’t assume extra knowledge

“In a room full of thirty kids,” says Deby Ranft, who teaches elementary and middle school students in rural Dayton, Nevada, “there are thirty personalities. It’s important to be able to hit all of those, and Code.org does a good job doing that.”

When designing lesson plans and activities, our curriculum team works hard to make sure they aren’t assuming extra knowledge that students wouldn’t necessarily have. They test all new lessons and activities in diverse classrooms across the country, and when issues are identified, they make changes.

A few years ago, when the team was first putting together the Problem Solving unit for CS Discoveries, one such issue cropped up. The team had designed a “planning a road trip” activity meant to engage students in the problem-solving process introduced in the previous lesson. Many of the teachers who tested the activity in their classrooms said that their students weren’t familiar with the “road trip” concept.

Road trips, in other words, were not a universal experience for students. “The road trip activity assumed an income level,” Wrobel said. “It assumed students had access to a car. It made cultural assumptions, too.”

At first, the team replaced “road trip” with “field trip,” which “allowed for a larger variety of transportation options that students might be familiar with,” according to Elizabeth Bacon, also a curriculum development manager. Ultimately (iterating, the way students are taught to do!), the team replaced the “road trip” planning activity with “redesigning the classroom,” which was accessible to everyone.

The latest version of CS Discoveries will iterate even further, Bacon says, “featuring multiple options for this lesson with different ‘themes’ that teachers can choose based on student interest.” Students will be able to “plan a pet adoption event,” for example, or “design a game for the class to play.” Giving teachers more options moves away from the one-size-fits-all approach to course-building and “empowers teachers to make appropriate choices for their own classrooms,” Bacon says.

Students can see themselves in Code.org video presenters

It’s important for students to see people who look like them using computer science in a number of ways.

Whether it’s celebrities like Steph Curry and Karlie Kloss explaining the importance of computer science, or software engineers like Felicia Williams and Erica Gomez demonstrating conditionals or introducing arrays, our team has worked hard to make sure the people featured in our videos represent both the diversity of people using computer science and the countless number of ways they’re creating art, solving problems, and working to make the world around them a better place.

There’s still a long way to go to ensure all students have access to computer science. If you’re interested in teaching computer science, check out our courses or sign up for a workshop. If you know someone who would make an awesome CS teacher, nominate them for a professional learning scholarship.

Check out code.org/yourschool for more ways to help expand computer science at your school or district.

-Eric Fershtman, Code.org

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Code.org® is dedicated to expanding access to computer science increasing participation by young women and students from other underrepresented groups.

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