SHERIDAN — Sharon Deutscher, a technology instructor in Sheridan County School District 2, usually arrives to Sheridan High School around 7:30 a.m. Most days, she said, there are students eagerly waiting outside her classroom to do their latest computer science assignment or work on a new update for their web design course.
Students at the high school and Sheridan Junior High School have more course options due to a Whitney Benefits grant to support computer programming education throughout Sheridan County. At SHS, there are six types of computer electives offered, four of which began in the past year thanks to the grant.
Along with computer repair and computer networking, the new courses are introduction to computer science, web design I, web design II and Advanced Placement computer science principles.
The grant pays for the technology required in the AP curriculum and provided a full computer lab with about 25 computers and monitors.
Shirley Coulter teaches the computer networking and computer repair classes, which are concurrent courses, meaning the students receive college credit through Sheridan College. Coulter said the main goal of all the computer classes is to give students an employable skill, whether they ultimately attend college or not. She said it is too early to tell how much of an impact the new classes have had, but said some students have computer-related jobs or internships with businesses in town.
Anecdotally, Deutscher said the new classes have interested a few students who were focused on business or accounting. Now, after taking a few computer courses, they have mentioned computer programming as a possible career.
Deutscher said the most exciting part is seeing students working together or teaching one another on assignments.
“The best way to learn something is to teach someone about it,” she said.
All of the courses are hands-on and the material can only truly be learned by doing. This means instead of being lectured to, most of the time the students are working together or on their own, asking the teacher for help when they have a question or problems arise.
It is also a constant learning process for Deutscher, who said she was interested in teaching a few new classes because she wanted a new teaching challenge. Deutscher sets deadlines for when all students need to be done with certain course sections, but of course, not every student advances at the same speed.
A few students had previous programming experience outside of class, so this means Deutscher has to work hard to stay ahead of the most advanced student in each class. Some students have competed statewide or nationally through the Future Business Leaders of America, which Deutscher leads.
In the near future, there will be more students with previous experience, since all sixth-graders at SJHS take at least one computer science class. The classes are offered as electives for students in seventh and eighth grade.
Chris Bloomgren, the SJHS technology department chair, said students begin by doing basic exercises through Code.org, a nonprofit company dedicated to expanding access to computer science. They can also move on to be introduced to different programming languages, such as Scratch, HTML and Python.
Bloomgren said students start with basic block code, which allows them to make simple shapes that have the capability to move and talk. One of the main assignments is for students to program two dice to roll.
Bloomgren also oversees a small after-school group that meets for an hour twice per week and works on designing apps. Those students have worked on apps such as a talking Magic 8 Ball, trivia with movie quotes and a Yahtzee game with talking dice.
Craig Blackwell, the computer basics teacher at SJHS, said programming is a nice combination of art and science, as there is always more than one way to create something or solve a problem. It allows more room for student creativity and ownership, he said, adding that students are always excited after they make something of their own design. Like Deutscher, both Bloomgren and Blackwell said they enjoy seeing students help each other with an issue.
The two SJHS teachers said the biggest challenge is staying current on the latest technology changes and advancements, so they are able to properly teach new material. Deutscher agreed, saying that she is sometimes learning with the students.
Another challenge, Deutscher said, is access to computers and laptops. Not every student has a computer at home, making it nearly impossible for them to work on assignments outside of class. Deutscher said it would be interesting to have an internet cafe in town for those students who don’t have one at home.
She also said it would be nice to see more female students taking programming classes. Deutscher said that of the 85 total students she teaches at the high school, only nine are girls. Ideally, Deutscher said, the courses offered to every sixth-grader at SJHS will increase the number of female students interested in programming, but it is not a guarantee.