Middle School Coding Class Charts New Territory

Teacher Cynthia Brady gave her students another nudge. The end-of-class bell rang minutes earlier but half her class was still huddled around computer screens.

“Sorry, guys, but you’ve got to go to your next class,” she said, and then turned to this reporter with a smile. “You don’t see that a lot in a math class.”

Brady is teaching a brand new coding course at Blue Ridge Middle School, a class that just may spark a solution for Northern Virginia’s cybersecurity workforce shortage.

“We have something special happening here,” Blue Ridge Principal Brion Bell said. “To our knowledge this has not been done in any middle school in the commonwealth.”

The idea came from a teacher at the Purcellville school who was looking to get her son excited about math. He spent his free time playing programming games such as Minecraft but didn’t see any real-world application for his required math courses.

“She asked me, ‘is there any way to marry these two—computer programming and state math requirements?’” Bell said. “It was a seminal moment. We immediately knew we had lightning in a bottle.”

He got some of the county’s most influential school leaders in a room, including Director of Middle School Education Neil Slevin and Career and Technical Education Supervisor Shirley Bazdar. Together, they came up with a curriculum that aligned with Virginia Standards of Learning and paved the way for sixth-grade students to get a foundation in coding during their required keyboarding class.

From there, they created a completely new course—Coding in Middle School—and offered it as a seventh-grade math elective to build on the foundation of what the students learned in keyboarding. The caveat, Bell told parents and students when enrollment opened last spring, is students who chose to take coding would miss out on a foreign language credit.

“Sixty-five out of 300 chose the coding class,” Bell said. “We were blown away.”

Coding in Middle School is designed to help students understand the structure of computer programing, Brady said. They use a program called Scratch that allows students to drag and drop commands. Just a semester in, and the students have created interactive games, mazes and animations. The class sets them up well for the computer science electives offered in high school that teach major script code, Brady said.

Outside of Blue Ridge Middle School, Loudoun public school students don’t have access to computer science courses until high school. At the Dec. 4 Legislative Breakfast, school leaders and state legislators discussed whether high school students should be allowed to take coding and programming classes to fulfill their foreign language requirements to earn an Advanced Studies Diploma. [See Loudoun Now article “Computer Science: A Substitute for Foreign Language?”]

Seventh-grader Julian Frattarola translates Python computer code for his classmates in Blue Ridge Middle School’s pilot coding program.
Seventh-grader Julian Frattarola translates Python computer code for his classmates in Blue Ridge Middle School’s pilot coding program. (Danielle Nadler/Loudoun Now)

Thirteen-year-old Julian Frattarola said he doesn’t feel like he’s missed out on anything by opting for the coding class over foreign language. It’s preparing him to follow in the footsteps of his father, who is a computer programmer. “When I grow up, I want to work in animation,” he said.

His classmate, Arya Tadepalli, considers coding as a foreign language in its own right, and one more people should know. “I know now that everything electronic is controlled by coding. I love having a glimpse of how all that works,” she said.

John Wood, CEO of cybersecurity company Telos in Ashburn, recently visited the coding class to see it in action. He said there are roughly 17,000 cybersecurity jobs available in Northern Virginia alone, and he’d like to see students as early as elementary school begin to learn computer science to fill some of those jobs.

“What they are doing there we should be singing from the mountain tops,” he said. Wood said young people lose interest in math because they don’t see how they can apply the classroom lessons to the real world. Showing students that coding and programming is the backbone of everything digital is one way to keep them intrigued.

“Getting kids to understand the practical aspects of science and math is very, very important. Then they see, hey, this matters,” he said.

Several middle schools in Loudoun are mimicking Blue Ridge’s keyboarding course for its sixth-grade students and are in talks about launching coding courses in the seventh grade next fall.

Bell credits the success of the program to the caliber of educators involved in getting it off the ground, from division-level administrators to high school computer science teachers and technology resource teachers.

“You’ve got all these folks recognizing the value of teaching 21st century digital design, that any cyber executive would say is a vital function in the workplace,” the principal said. “We want to share it. This isn’t a Blue Ridge Middle School thing. This is a Loudoun thing.”

Contact Danielle Nadler at dnadler@loudounnow.com.

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