By H. M. Cauley for the AJC
Helping kids succeed in school often means recruiting outside resources to bolster learning initiatives. For the Centennial Academy charter school, having a physical location on Luckie Street downtown puts two exceptional resources within walking distance: Georgia State and Georgia Tech. Together, researchers from both of the leading research institutions have pitched in to change the way Centennial students think and learn.
About 300 the third, fourth and fifth graders are in the second year of an integrated computer science program that is part of the school’s STEM initiative. It includes everyone having a Chromebook and working at their own pace to grasp concepts.
“Typically there’s a big push in middle school to do this, but we’re starting them young,” said Alison Shelton, now in her 10th year as Centennial’s principal. “Students can learn more with the world at their fingertips. This program has also broadened their scope beyond the classroom as well, and got them thinking about computer-related jobs. It’s exciting for us to see how excited they are.”
But the biggest impact of the program is getting kids to think beyond pencil and paper, she added. “With this technology, they can create a game or video. It’s really increased their motivation to learn.”
It’s also changing the way kids approach problem solving, said Caitlin Dooley of Georgia State’s Education department.
“What are the ways of thinking a computer scientist needs to make a computer work? Sequencing, trouble shooting, data analysis and different kinds of logic,” she said. “Preliminary research suggests that when kids know that language, they start doing it and learning transferable skills.”
GSU teamed with members of Tech’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing who were also at Centennial working on projects. Chris Thompson, who heads the Tech center, said the Centennial initiative is just one of several his group of 45 works on with elementary students.
“We have different projects, from getting them interested in math and science to specifically working on the academics so they can pursue a degree in those fields,” he said. “We also develop a new curriculum that might advance the teaching of stem-related subjects.”
The teaching aspect is a crucial part of the is program, explained Megan McCarthy Welch, a Georgia State post-doctorate research associate whose focuses on the initiative.
“We’re raising teacher awareness of computational thinking and their use of computer science in the classroom,” she said. “They’re now using computational thinking vocabulary. That shows a shift in mindsets.”
When the program launched, there were a few obstacles, Welch said. “Teachers are already under so much pressure that sometimes a program like this is seen as just something else they have to do. Some even might say, ‘I don’t know anything about computer science; how am I going to teach it?’ But now after a year, they’re seeing what kids can do with technology, and they’re starting to incorporated computational thinking into other areas of their classrooms.”
Shelton said it’s easy for teachers to get lost in the technology “and then forget about developing a curriculum around it. But with this program, we are developing that. Our teachers are learning a lot more and working on high-quality lessons. For most of us who are not digital natives, that means we’ve had to change the scope of our teaching. But having the support of Georgia Tech and Georgia State has been extremely critical to our success.”
This story originally appeared in the Atlanta Journal Constitution by H. M. Cauley