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Are We Preparing Our Children?

CSTA Advisory Council Member Anita Verno of Bergen Community College working with students from East Newark Public School as part of an on-site Technology Day at Bergen.

The next generation will interact with computers in ways we cannot imagine. Are we preparing our children?

Today's children are high-level users of computers. Give them a tech toy; they can work with it. But, are they using it creatively? Do they have any understanding of the possibilities? When they send a text on their smartphone, do they ever think about the power in that device? I believe that the youth of today are using computers in a similar way they use a TV remote. While they can't imagine life without a remote, few use all the capabilities that are available. Computer Science education is a must for all students so they can head into the future, confident that they can move forward with the technology, take advantage of the computing power it provides, and use technical tools to carve out new and creative solutions to problems.

When does computing education begin? At birth? Pre-school? Elementary school? Middle school? High school? College? The earlier the better. I am attempting to target elementary school. Is this possible? Can we teach computer science concepts to young children? The answer is unequivocally yes. However, the expectations must be realistic and the approach simple.

College faculty can help expose elementary children to CS by providing workshops for teachers, visiting schools to help deliver lessons, and inviting schools to participate in Technology Day activities on-campus. Elementary teachers often are not able to determine what CS content is appropriate to offer or they may not have sufficient technical background to deliver computing lessons. The workshops help teachers understand the possibilities and consider ways to fit CS activities into their existing curriculum. A college faculty visit to a local school to help deliver a lesson provides a higher level of support as a teacher begins teaching CS. And a visit by elementary children to a college campus permits young students to engage in CS activities that enhance current learning. In addition, it exposes children to the college environment and may encourage some to consider continuing their education, possibly to include a career in computing.

A bonus for the college faculty members participating with young children is watching the "awakening". "Wow! I can do that?" Additionally, I often find myself reevaluating approaches for teaching my college students as I learn how to break down content to the most basic level. Ultimately, if I can prepare lessons and teach programming or web development to a 10 year old, I can employ similar techniques to engage my college students.

How to get started? Here's an approach that has worked for the Information Technology faculty at Bergen Community College. Approximately once a year we invite teachers, including the CSTA-NNJ members, to attend a Saturday morning workshop that is also serving as a meeting of the Community College Computer Consortium (CCCC-NJ). The CCCC membership is primarily comprised of CS and IT community college faculty from around the state. This workshop provides the opportunity for networking as well as serving as an educational event. The networking at the workshop, outreach activities through various areas at my college, and inquiries from local teachers often serve to pair teachers with college faculty for continued discussions of CS education.

When there is interest in bringing CS education to a class, particularly an elementary class, I will work with a teacher to determine the best approach based on available equipment at their school. One approach that has worked well is to plan a Technology Day event at the college based on a future curriculum topic. Students love a field trip and the CS lesson will be delivered by college computing faculty rather than the elementary teacher. Once the topic and the Day are set, one or more pre-event lessons are developed together to prepare the student for Technology Day. The lessons include preparatory info about the CS activities that will be part of Technology Day. Follow up activities for after Technology Day should also be planned. To ensure the Technology Day event will run as smoothly as possible, I invite a few of my college students to assist as teacher aides. The more help the better.
Benefits to the students: Exposure to the college campus, exposure to computer labs (if there are no labs available at school), and participation in introductory CS activities.

Benefits to the teachers: Help with planning and delivering CS instruction.

Benefits to the college faculty: Exposure to new ways to structure and present engaging lessons. The methods can be scaled and used with the appropriate modification for instruction to college students. Additionally, modeling outreach activities for college students helps them understand that you "do" as well as "say". And for community college faculty, community service is often a bonus when applying for promotion since one role of community colleges is to provide services to the community.

I believe helping young children understand that computing is only limited by their imagination is one of the most rewarding activities of my professional career.

Anita Verno
Associate Professor, Information Technology
Bergen Community College
CSTA Advisory Council Member

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