Photo by Lynne Deliman
Jason Hivner, program director for Stem Coding Lab, helps student Jennira McClung.
By Jamie Wiggan
The cash-strapped Sto-Rox School District can’t afford to run ambitious computer science programming of its own, but thanks to a new arrangement with a Pittsburgh-area non-profit, students will now finish elementary school with a solid foundation in coding skills.
Since the start of semester, all students in grades three through six have received weekly instruction in computer programming basics. Picking up again in January, they’ll delve further into specialized fields like robotics, animation and website design.
“By the time the current third-graders get to sixth grade, they’ll know at least five programming languages,” said Jason Hivner, Program Director at Stem Coding Lab, a Pittsburgh-based non-profit that partners with local schools to meet needs in computer science education.
“We really pride ourselves on providing this to kids who don’t get exposure to this on a day-to-day basis.”
In addition to learning important new skills, the coding classes also seem to be sparking strong engagement among a student body where academics and attendance fall well below statewide averages.
“The kids have bought in,” Hivner said during a report to the school board Oct. 28. “We have had amazing reactions from the kids.”
Upper Elementary Principal Heather Johnston believes the positive student responses are fueled by their every day interaction with computer technology outside the classroom.
“The kids really like that it relates to the internet, the gaming, the apps,” that they use on a daily basis, Johnston said. They like seeing “what goes into making them – the things they can relate to.”
Casey Mindlin, Stem Coding Lab executive director, said their classes are designed this way.
“[The programming]is, above all, fun,” he said.
“We want this to not feel like school.”
Behind the fun, though, Mindlin stressed computer skills will play an outsized role in the future workforce, and whether students learn them early on could have a sizable impact on their career prospects.
“By the time kids reach high school and they have yet to be exposed to computer science, it is far too late,” he said.
Sto-Rox was not alone in lacking an elementary coding curriculum prior to the partnership.
Mindlin said less than 50% of schools statewide offer entry level coding, while nearly 20,000 full time jobs in the field are currently unfilled.
The mission of Stem Coding Lab, Mindlin said, is to ensure some of those positions are taken up by local students.
“We see the way the world is turning,” he said. “We want to prepare Pittsburgh kids for Pittsburgh opportunities.”
The non-profit organization offsets most of the programming costs through support pledged by the Benedum and Hillman and Grable foundations, but also relies on individual donors and is sponsored by Google.
The remaining $5,000 which the district is responsible for is covered by an annual $10,000 pledge by Stowe-based Standard Forged Products for science and technology programming at Sto-Rox.
Coding classes take place in school once a week, with students learning how to design websites and program games from their school-issued laptops in regular classroom settings.
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, not nearly enough students possessed their own devices to allow this learning to take place outside of a traditional computer lab setting.
Johnston said she welcomes this outcome as an unforeseen benefit from an otherwise deadly and disruptive disease.
“The positive out of the whole pandemic is that we are now at a one-to-one [student to device ratio,]” she said. “We would never be one-to-one without that.”