Underrepresented Third Graders Learning to Code: Elementary Education 2.0

A few weeks ago, I had the opportunity to spend a week speaking in Portland. In addition to great food trucks, I met some pretty amazing people. One of those amazing people is Yune. I met Yune after asking our mutual colleague, Jamie Johnson, if he could make some introductions to people in the School of Engineering. My non-profit StudentSWAGfocuses on creating opportunities for disadvantaged kids to learn about and pursue careers in engineering and computer sciences. I could not think of a more perfect opportunity to hear from the frontlines how teachers and students are working together with technology.

After hearing Yune share the story of the work she’s doing teaching third and fourth grade students computer science and coding, I asked if I could interview her for the Huffington Post. This is a story people need to hear. Her story, passion and leadership will inspire you, as it did me.

Yune Tran is currently the Chair of Undergraduate Teacher Education at George Fox University. Prior to transitioning to higher education in 2011, she spent over 15 years in K-12 platforms as a central office administrator, teacher, and program developer across Texas, California, and Florida. She has trained mainstream teachers at all stages of their careers to recognize how students’ cultural backgrounds can be used as tools for their learning. As a child of poverty and one of nine children, all of whom immigrated to the United States, her passion for work revolves around social justice, equity, and opportunity for the marginalized or underserved.

RT: What led you to teach third-grade students coding?

Yune: The idea started from home, around the dinner table, as my husband and I were searching for alternative methods to support our daughters’ passion for technology and engineering. My two daughters, who were ages 6 and 7 at the time, had attended summer robotics camp, but quickly became discouraged because they were the only females. My husband has a background in computer science, so we figured it was a feasible option to explore online platforms to help them gain foundational knowledge and skills in software programming, while having fun at the same time.

RT: How did you know it would work?

Yune: For my own children, we provided the tools in terms of a computer and some initial online support, but the girls quickly learned to navigate. The concepts they were learning taught them to create their own animations and games. Some of the online concepts involved the fundamentals of basic reading and arithmetic. These concepts were solidified for my daughters, who were in 3rd and 4th grades at the time. I would come home from work and they would be eager to show off their creations. Excitement and enjoyment with coding-related tasks abounded. As months progressed, I observed how my own children gained basic computational concepts, such as algorithms and functions, while acquiring new vocabulary, such as pixels and loops. This was when a new vision became apparent. I started to think about the equity and purpose around the larger issue. My girls were learning about coding because they had access and opportunity. I contemplated the idea of transferring this type of learning to all students as part of the regular school day in their classrooms. With daily access, no one would feel isolated or discouraged based on their background. This was when I started to engage with school and district stakeholders on a plan to embed coding and computer science opportunities as part of the in-school learning experience. I thought of ways to maximize existing resources and ways to deliver lessons that would involve older students mentoring younger students, while serving as role models.

The project started as a pilot in two elementary schools with two different third grade classrooms. I worked with classroom teachers to create a model where I would pair an elementary education student and a computer science student, who would plan and deliver a series of hybrid lessons to the elementary-aged students.

RT: Why is it important to start at such an early age?

Yune: It is critical to think about ways to impact children’s learning at the youngest levels. Providing elementary-aged students with appropriate hands-on lessons and application of computer science content should be key for student learning. I think the best way to do that is through engaging projects and robust online educational games and resources. These can transform the learning experience for young children.

Some of the reasons why I am a proponent of learning coding early are to foster confidence, promote perseverance, and ultimately, nurture early career aspirations related to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). From my own background and research, I have found that young children need exposure, opportunities, and encouragement so that they, too, can envision themselves exploring possibilities that they might not have thought of otherwise.

Existing evidence also points to the benefits of early inquiry-based science, numeracy, and literacy activities during preprimary and primary years; therefore, providing elementary-aged students appropriate learning experiences around STEM and computer science topics helps shape their content knowledge, attitudes, and achievement in science and math.

RT: Are you targeting specific types of schools, students or communities?

Yune: Yes. I am working with communities in the Portland metro area targeting elementary schools with underrepresented children. These include minority populations, students in special education, English Language Learners (ELLs), and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds. We target enrichments particularly related to STEM academics.

RT: How do you introduce coding to the third-graders and how are they responding to the class?

Yune: I teach education courses at the university, so I utilize education majors who need clinical practice hours. I recruit computer science students and pair them with education students. It works because one is content oriented and the other is more pedagogically inclined. They work together to design their lesson plans weekly. Lessons are then reviewed by me so that the pair is ready and confident when they present to elementary students. Hour long lessons, including a hands-on activity, followed by online puzzles, are taught each week, over approximately 10 weeks. I offer suggestions and recommendations for embedded frameworks, which include differentiation strategies, appropriate to meeting student needs. Computational thinking concepts are introduced slowly each week and elementary students work through a series of puzzles from the online platform. For the most part, the elementary students are having a great time and enjoying the lessons. I have interview data and many of them are saying how the lessons are fun and challenging. Students are disappointed when the lessons wrap up toward the end of the semester.

RT: How are parents responding?

Yune: I have not had direct contact with parents. However, a high response rate of 98% of parental consent forms allowed over 300 children to participate in research related to their children’s learning and future career aspirations in STEM.

RT: What are some of the outcomes you’re finding?

Yune: I use a mixed methods analysis composed of quantitative and qualitative procedures to determine elementary-aged students’ perceptions of STEM, their enjoyment in related tasks, and career aspirations. Mean scores from pre- and post-test items for all participants from the pilot year (about 140) revealed slight increases in attitudes and perceptions regarding STEM-related tasks. I used inferential statistics and found that significant differences existed in self-rated perceptions of technology between the pre- and post-test, as well as, in ratings of enjoyment in STEM-related tasks. Students’ written narratives, with support from individual interviews, also revealed several emerging themes: their enjoyment of lessons focused on CS concepts, computational thinking, literacy connections to other concepts and the idea of teamwork and collaboration as useful skills for the future. Students have remarked about how they feel the lessons are fun and engaging, specifying how particular content has been helpful for them in other subjects. Finally, I analyzed students’ career aspirations from the pre- to post-test. This revealed an increased interest in computer and engineering jobs.

RT: How is the program doing?

Yune: It is expanding rapidly. Since its inception last fall semester when I started the pilot project in two classrooms, the program doubled in size in the spring semester into four classrooms. Currently, the program is in 15 classrooms across two school districts.

RT: What are some of the challenges?

Yune: Challenges include limited financial resources and human capital to continue and sustain growth. This is the most stressful part of the program. Additional districts and schools have approached me to have the program implemented in their classrooms; however, I have to turn them away because I’m at capacity. It’s incredibly frustrating and unfortunate.

RT: How are you funding the program?

Yune: Right now, there really isn’t a budget that I can say will be sustainable. For this year, my Dean has pledged a modest amount of money to offset the cost of the program. I am working hard with another colleague who is assisting me to manage the program, but this is difficult since I still have teaching and departmental obligations.

RT: What are you hoping to achieve?

Yune: I am hoping to get content into the hands of young learners because I believe that this is a critical time for development for them. My hope is that by having elementary students learn useful content, they are also learning essential ‘soft skills’ such as persistence, communication, collaboration, and problem solving that can be utilized in any discipline or career. Ultimately, I want students to be inspired and begin to set goals for themselves.

RT: What do you envision for the future of the program?

Yune: I would like the program to be sustained in the existing community given the proper resources. I do believe that the program can be replicated and scaled to additional districts and classrooms nationwide to impact more elementary students with the appropriate growth mindset.

RT: How can people get involved and to support your work and offer it to even more students?

Yune: Donate time, money, and resources. Financial resources would help to provide stipends and credit options to the college students who are teaching the lessons. I’m in need of dedicated time and human resources to be able to expand to additional schools. This is a program that I started and continued because I believe in the impact. I do still have a full-time job and having to creatively fit everyone into an existing tight schedule without a budget is a challenge.

For more information on how to support and spread this program to even more students, email Yune at yunetran1@gmail.com.

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