Blackbird Program Teaches Middle School Coding

As the need for IT professionals continues to grow with the migration of the workforce to remote work and digital spaces, the urgency for schools to teach IT grows with it. At the post-secondary level, coding bootcamps are growing in popularity, and state governments are passing bills to mandate computer science as a K-12 requirement. Eventually hoping to make coding a core class in all middle and high schools, the Oregon-based ed-tech company Blackbird found that one day of training was enough for teachers to successfully teach a coding lesson in the classroom.

Blackbird said in a Press release that few students take coding unless it is optional, an option that is not available in all schools. The company cited research that suggests that students who learn STEM subjects in middle school are more likely to pursue and succeed professionally in STEM fields. Knowing this, Yusra Obaid, a STEM curriculum developer at the Bellevue School District in Washington, got the ball rolling to set up a program with Blackbird last spring.

“We are always looking for…opportunities that allow us to integrate computer science into core subjects,” Obaid said. Government Technology in an email. “We saw a potential opportunity where we can partner to develop and test a unit that integrates computational concepts into science using text-based coding.”


Testing its cross-curricular “Coding as a Conduit” pilot program, Blackbird provided four teachers from two schools, who had no computer programming experience, with one day of training to cover a two-week unit. According to the press release, the two-week magnetism unit has been incorporated into the school’s regular physics classes, challenging students to learn the basics of text-based computer programming so they can model their own physical simulations, with teachers receiving support from Blackbird along the way. . One pair of teachers taught the two-week unit in January, while the other pair taught it in February, integrating it into the school’s regular physics lessons. In total, the instructors taught 18 eighth-grade science sections to 447 students.

The results indicated that the program performed well in Blackbird’s target age range: 83% of these 447 students demonstrated the ability to code a physics simulation involving velocity and acceleration. They spent an average of 3.3 hours learning and completed an average of 30.3 lessons, or 22.1 without a cue.

Mike Lynch, director of education and creator of the program at Blackbird, found the results a bit surprising.

“Take two weeks of classes in one day can wear you out. So at the end of that day, I didn’t really know how it was going to be,” Lynch said. GovTech. “But (the teachers) all came back and said, ‘The kids ate it all. They really liked it. And we really liked that too.

Lynch said the program helped Blackbird look at their program from a different perspective. He said the teachers and Blackbird had a debrief after the program, with Bellevue staff walking away from it looking to expand the program next year and involve 10 eighth-grade teachers. Before that, Lynch said he intended to address some teacher concerns about the material, namely providing extension activities for students who worked at a faster pace and some support systems for students who took late.

“We think it was a successful pilot of the hardware, and the students were engaged, and (we) look forward to testing the hardware again next year as a second pilot to learn more and tweak and modify as based on feedback from our students and the community,” Obaid said. He added that the district will also work to overcome barriers that have made IT careers more or less accessible to students based on their race and gender sex.

Blackbird’s press release also said the company would create more “small bites” units, as Lynch calls them, that use coding to teach science and math fundamentals at the middle school level, through partnerships with schools and school districts. Lynch said the company’s experience has been that school districts are hesitant to make coding a stand-alone classroom, but they’ve been more receptive to the idea of ​​integrating coding into core courses such as physics. , science and mathematics.

“Educators have been perking up their ears when you talk about small ways to introduce computer programming into classes that already exist,” he said. “We really saw administrators who were worried about the master schedule become more interested in this approach. And teachers are much more willing to try.

Lynch said Blackbird’s curriculum will allow for more than six distinct units in a single school year, building on each other as they progress through each segment. Additionally, he said Blackbird is trying to create a catalog of lessons that give students a path to more complex computer programming skills if they choose.

Bellevue was Blackbird’s last Coding as Led pilot program. The company has conducted four so far, with three more planned for the coming year.

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