(TNS) — Three schools in the Decatur City system are preparing to pilot a curriculum that will teach students as early as kindergarten how to write computer programs.
"This is where our kids are, so we have to get there with them," Benjamin Davis Magnet School Principal Aundrea Hanson said.
Jeff Gray, a University of Alabama professor who said K-12 schools do students a disservice by denying them access to more computer science, is in Decatur this week training teachers from Julian Harris, Ben Davis and Leon Sheffield elementary schools how to write programs.
Gray, who serves on the educational advisory board for Code.org, said the goal is to build a pipeline so that computer science is available from the first day students enroll in school.
"We don't need to wait until they get to middle or high school," he said.
Code.org, a nonprofit organization based in Seattle whose founding donors include Microsoft founder Bill Gates and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg, is dedicated to expanding computer science education in secondary and primary schools, and provides training for teachers nationwide.
Julian Harris started an introductory coding class last year and the response from students was "unbelievable," Principal Derrick Aikerson said.
"We want our students to be more than just users of computers and technology," he said. "We want them to understand how things work and this requires a lot of critical thinking. We want them to use software, but we also want them to think about writing their own software."
Renaado Spears, a kindergarten teacher at Julian Harris, was skeptical about teaching students so young to write programs until she realized it involved using everything teachers were teaching, but forcing students to think on a higher level.
"I saw them using math and reading, and students were working as a team to solve problems," she said.
After Superintendent Dan Brigman requested that Hanson take the lead in establishing a "coding curriculum," she reached out to Gray, who for almost three years has been pushing school districts to expand computer science to every grade level.
He was in Decatur almost two years ago leading a statewide initiative designed to have at least 500 Alabama teachers qualified to teach students how technology works and is created. The plan took a back seat, however, when results of the ACT Aspire showed the majority of Alabama students were not reading at grade level.
Gray said standardized test results should not prevent Decatur and other school systems from expanding computer science because this is where some of the top jobs are.
A U.S. News and World Reports study in 2014 found three of the top eight jobs nationwide were related to computer science. Software developer was third on the list, with the U.S. Labor Department estimating 140,000 new positions with the average median salary above $90,000 would be created by 2022.
Computer systems analyst and information security analyst were seventh and eighth on the list, respectively. Those positions are expected to see a 24 to 36 percent increases by 2022.
Hanson said there's an educational component to coding that aligns with Alabama's new standards.
"Students have to problem-solve, think critically, be precise and pay attention to details," she said. "We're going to try to implement this as early as October."
Some systems, such as the Los Altos School District in the Silicon Valley near San Francisco, already are on board. In 2013, the district extended its science, technology, engineering and mathematics program to allow students to write codes for STEM projects they create.
Vicki Williams, a technology specialist at Decatur's two magnet schools, said students of today are more hands-on, which is why it's important to embrace a stronger technology curriculum.
"It's not enough for them to see something work," she said. "We have to teach them how and why it works and equip them with the skills to do their own programs."
Williams said she's seen students in a computer lab get irritated when programs do not do what they want them to.
"If they have knowledge of how it's written, it helps them to understand," she said.
Gray said the toughest challenge for most school districts is access to computers and classroom time. Decatur approved a $2.4 technology budget last week, which more than doubled what the school district spent a decade ago.
As for the time element, Williams said teachers have to integrate technology in the curriculum and not view it as an addition.
"We're trying to get students to think differently so when they get ready to play a video game the focus is on why it works the way it works," she said.
©2016 The Decatur Daily (Decatur, Ala.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.