SHERIDAN — All school districts in Wyoming will soon have to teach computer science and coding courses. For Sheridan County School District 2, the process has already begun in full force.
SCSD2 has worked with Sheridan College and Whitney Benefits for the past few years to offer more computer courses in secondary schools. This year, it began doing something similar in elementary schools. Currently, there are about 35 kindergarten through fifth-grade teachers receiving training from Abby Hurley, the Sheridan College computer science youth outreach coordinator.
SCSD2 superintendent Craig Dougherty said the new initiative shows SCSD2’s proactive approach to computer education. He said the school district is thinking decades into the future about technology-related jobs, most of which probably don’t yet exist.
“It’s not waiting for somebody to mandate it or to make it part of a state regulation or a law,” Dougherty said. “Our job is, ‘What is it down the road, 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 years for our students? What do we need to do to prepare them?’”
Hurley’s part-time position began this year. She is employed by the college and her salary is part of a seven-year, $2.1 million grant from Whitney Benefits to improve local coding and computer science. Despite technically working for the college, Hurley spends the vast majority of her weekly hours in the five elementary schools in Sheridan. Hurley holds a master’s degree in instructional technology and previously taught at Sagebrush Elementary School for seven years, instructing fourth- and fifth- graders.
The position opened up this summer and she applied because it sounded like a dream job. Hurley had planned to stay home this year with her young son but couldn’t pass up the opportunity.
She has taught after-school coding in the past, but it has never been part of elementary school curriculum until now. With Hurley’s new role, every student should learn coding by the time they reach middle school.
Hurley has two different roles: helping elementary school teachers prep to teach coding and teaching lesson plans to students herself, usually for 30 to 45 minutes. The lessons occur during regular class time and can be part of another subject like math or science.
All 35 elementary school teachers volunteered to receive instruction from Hurley, which has made the transition into her job fairly seamless. Hurley asks teachers to provide computer science instruction for an average of 30 minutes per week.
Rep. Mark Kinner, R-Sheridan, is a member of the Joint Education Committee and supported a bill that the Wyoming Legislature approved in February of this year to add computer science to the state’s educational basket of goods. The bill mandates that all school districts teach computer science and computational thinking courses by the 2022-23 school year.
Kinner also attended the Wyoming Governor’s Business Forum in mid-November and said business leaders from around the state talked about the importance of adding computer science to all schools.
“I think (Sheridan County School) District 2 certainly is ahead of the curve by offering it to so many different students and in coordinating it with the college,” Kinner said. “We’re probably considered the envy of the state and maybe the poster child in going ahead and moving our students forward with that.”
Because of the recent bill, Hurley’s role will likely evolve over the years to focus on aligning curriculum with state standards. She will also eventually help with the curriculum transition from elementary to middle school. That will ensure students don’t learn the same computer science topics in fifth and sixth grade, for example.
Hurley said time management was difficult, especially in the beginning of the year when she met with dozens of instructors.
“You only have so many hours in a day and you have so many standards you have to hit, so how do we squeeze [computer science and coding] in?” Hurley said.
Several months into the school year, Hurley’s level of involvement now varies by teacher. Some only needed one or two lessons early in the semester and could teach the subject on their own, while others still have Hurley teach students every week.
During lessons, students mainly create games or puzzles through coding. K-2 students use the coding language ScratchJr on iPads and third- through fifth-graders work with the language Scratch through Google Chromebooks.
Hurley said discipline problems during her lessons are non-existent because students are absorbed in the technology.
“This kind of thing, they just eat it up,” Hurley said.
Hurley also works with the consulting company Boot Up to give trainings and presentations to teachers. Hurley builds more specific lesson plans based on the general curriculum outline from Boot Up.
In addition to the approximately three dozen elementary teachers already working, Hurley said SCSD2 is ready for more educators to join in the future.
“We’re hoping it’ll just continue to grow organically,” Hurley said. “[Teachers] will see down the hall, like, ‘What are they doing in there?’ or you’ll see your own child coming home with a project or talking about a project and think, ‘I want to do that in my classroom, too.’”
Hurley said the early education is vital to helping students land future jobs in growing industries.
“Computers are everywhere, all day long, and you don’t want to just be a consumer of the technology, but we want our students to be able to produce this technology,” Hurley said.
Similar practices will likely occur in all Wyoming schools in future years, but SCSD2 is not wasting any time on computer science and coding education.