There’s a staggering statistic that Gov. Terry McAuliffe makes sure to mention whenever he’s in front of an audience of educators: Virginia has 36,000 unfilled jobs in the computer science sector.
“I tell students the starting pay is $88,000,” McAuliffe said during Virginia is for Computer Science Lovers Week in July. “We either fill these jobs or they go to other states.”
Now, Loudoun is serving as the tip of the spear in Virginia to prepare students to fill those jobs. The county’s public school system has launched the state’s very first computer science immersion schools. That means that every student in every grade level—yes, even kindergarten—at Meadowland Elementary, Moorefield Station Elementary and Round Hill Elementary will take part in computer coding activities for at least 30 minutes every school day, thanks to a partnership with Code to the Future.
For many students, this will be a game changer, says Loudoun’s Digital Integration Specialist Nick Grzeda. He said the decision to create computer science immersion schools was partially influenced by the demands of the job market.
“Right now, there’s that one statistic that we have out there,” he said, referring to the number of unfilled computer science jobs. Sixty-five percent of the jobs today’s students will have 10 or 20 years from now have yet to be created, he added. “It’s the belief of academia that those 65 percent of jobs that aren’t out there just yet are going to deal with computer science.”
Beginning in kindergarten, students at the three immersion schools will be introduced to Scratch, a coding language and program. Already this school year, students as young as 5 are learning to spell their names with characters and then animate the letters.
Third-graders in the program will be taught to play chess blind folded ahead of learning coding. Code to the Future’s founder Andrew Svehaug, a U.S. Scholastic Chess Champion player and coach, considers chess a good foundation to computer science.
“He took a lot of the critical thinking and logic of chess and built afterschool coding programs which evolved into the immersive coding programs like you see here,” said Joshua Johnson, instructional coach and curriculum developer with Code to the Future. He is the coach assigned to Loudoun’s schools, as well as schools in Baltimore. “We’ve seen it really help kids.”
By the end of their elementary career, fifth-graders will have learned the programming language Java and use it to create a game that incorporates characters and dialogue to tell a story.
Loudoun has a three-year agreement with Code to the Future to provide support for the three schools. Teachers at Round Hill, Meadowland and Moorefield Station received a full day of Code to the Future training ahead of the first day of school. Johnson will help lead classroom lessons and continue professional development with the teachers throughout the school year.
The three schools were selected through an application process. Meadowland Elementary Assistant Principal Anna Purdy was thrilled to hear her school was chosen, both from the perspective of an educator and a parent. It’s all her 5-year-old son, Drew, could talk about over the summer, ahead of starting his kindergarten year at Meadowland.
“Children are already interested in this, whether or not schools are doing it,” she said. She’s seen coding improve her son’s work ethic and concentration. “It’s teaching him grit. When it’s really hard, his mind is set on getting it. He beat his first logic game over the summer and was so excited. Now the fact he gets to do this at school? He can’t believe it.”
While there has been a general consensus among Loudoun educators that computer science should be introduced to students earlier than high school, it’s been a piecemeal approach. Loudoun County Public Schools has hosted a STEM summer camp that teaches coding to third- through ninth-graders. It’s also gradually introduced an introductory coding class to more and more middle schools over the past couple of years. Soon, though, there will be a clear path for interested students to learn computer science from elementary through high school. School leaders are finalizing a comprehensive blueprint for teaching computer science from kindergarten through high school.
Computer science teacher Cynthia Brady said Loudoun school leaders are headed in the right direction when it comes to equipping more students to pursue careers in computer science. She first created a coding elective class for students at Blue Ridge Middle School in 2015. Now that same course is offered at 10 of the county’s 16 middle schools. The class at Blue Ridge, for one, is maxed out at 75 students.
“It’s really been exciting to see,” Brady said. “I’m in favor of computer science at all grade levels. The track we’re on is a good one.”
Ahead of implementing the computer science program here, Loudoun Elementary Education Supervisor Teri Finn visited an elementary school in Covina, CA, to see how the Code to the Future immersion program was working there. She saw a level of maturity and self-taught learning that she rarely sees at the elementary level.
“They would see a bug and they would work together without adults facilitating to try to debug the program. The collaboration, the critical thinking and the problem solving was amazing to see,” Finn said. “And that all flowed over naturally into other content areas. That’s what I think we’ll see here.”
Code to the Future also operates immersion schools in Minnesota, Florida, California, Maryland, Texas and Wisconsin.
The program is made possible through a Loudoun Education Foundation grant, a combination of a $5,000 gift from Unanet and a $20,000 joint gift from the Community Foundation for Northern Virginia and the Chin Family Charitable Fund. The money helped purchase one Chromebook for every two students in kindergarten through third grade at the immersion schools and provide Dell laptops to each fourth- and fifth-grader in the program.