FMCSD gets “clicking” with computer science initiative

District using $50K award to rollout new K-12 computer science initiative


FORT MADISON – A focus on a district-wide computer science learning model is underway at Fort Madison schools after Richardson School received a $50K grant in partnership with the Governor’s STEM advisory council.

Kim Harmon, the district’s director of curriculum and student services, said the district applied for the grant in March and was notified at the end of April that it was one of six schools in the state to receive the award.

The money is not in the form of a direct contribution to the school’s coffers however. The money is set aside for reimbursement for purchases or to help offset training and teacher pay associated with enhanced computer science programming.

Harmon said the district wrote the grant in a broad framework and now the extra financial support can be used across all grades in the district. Tentative plans include a four-year roll out of a K-12 enhanced computer science program.

Iowa has six STEM regions across the state basically divided by Interstate 80 with three regions below the interstate and three across the top of the state. Harmon said funds have increased in the privately supported STEM advisory council, so going forward each region will have two school awarded funds.

“Why did we get involved?…because of the importance of how computers are changing our lives and there is this need to teach kids computer science. We see it only in isolation at elementary levels and not to the breadth we would like even at the secondary level, but it needs to happen,” Harmon said.

She said it’s also important at the secondary level for students to have access to computer science programming because statistics show application numbers for those jobs are pretty low.

Harmon also believes that girls and minority students aren’t seeing the potential for them in futures involving computer science.

“That’s where we wrote the grant targeting that group simply because girls develop a bias about what occupations are appropriate for them, regardless of the non-sexist society that we try to create,” she said.

Focusing on female and minorities could help them understand that this is a creative tool for problem solving and hopefully they’ll learn those fundamental skills for computer science and start to understand the career possibilities.

“By the time they get to middle and high school, the idea of computer science doesn’t interest them, and so if we can start them early we think we can ignite that interest.”

Harmon said there is a team of 13 administrators, teachers, and coaches that are part of the planning and implementation team that is charged with how the district will embed computer science into the curriculum because it’s a packed day at the elementary level.

She said a rough plan is already being framed out where a group of four teachers representing grades K-3 will form the first teacher planning and development group, or cohort.

The tentative plan outlined has a planning and development committee comprised for four teachers one from each K-3rd. The upcoming school year will be the training and planning year for that group, which Harmon called “Cohort 1”. In the 1920-21 school year, those four teachers will start implementing and at the same time another cohort will come in from the next four grade levels. The goal would be by 2022-23 implementation is going on in all schools and at all levels.

She said the implementation wouldn’t just focus on coding, although that is part of the proposed programming. Other areas will include software, networking, and data analysis pieces. The other area will focus on the cultural, ethical, and safety issues associated with today’s computing.

Harmon said the other pieces help align the computer science curriculum with the district’s goals of a rigorous curriculum, higher order thinking and problem-solving, and then preparing students for successful life after graduation.

“We see a really close tie to that so we hope others do as well,” she said.

She said all students may not want a career in computer programming, but they need to understand that computers will be part of their lives.

“The goal is that it’s happening in every classroom, but that’s tentative. We have to gauge interest not only from the teacher’s side, but the students’ side and family side as far as what should that look like for Fort Madison because it needs to be unique for us.”

Harmon and Superintendent Dr. Erin Slater presented to all the buildings in June with a heads up to staff as to what this was about. She said it could ultimately impact all teachers.

The district has had meetings with STEM advisory people and supporters engaged with computer science, including the 11 other schools in the region, to brainstorm what the program will look like.

“Anybody in our generation, and by our generation I mean 40 and over, the world we graduated into is not the same world our kids are graduating into and the career opportunities are so vastly different that we have to get past the notion that the way I was educated and the way I went to school is going to be ok for my child,” Harmon said.

Harmon said the $50,000 Richardson Elementary was granted is not a blank check, but is a reimbursement for approved planning.

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