Robots scoot, stop, turn and reverse as they zip around the floor of a classroom at Redstone Elementary School in Highlands Ranch.
The fourth-grade students use iPads to make small adjustments and refine the course and behavior of their robots.
“We’re trying to make him go around in a circle and smash the cups,” Jack Christopherson said. “It’s fun because we get to decide what it is going to do. He can make noises. He can greet people. He can dance.”
The robots can do all that because students are writing the algorithms — the step-by-step procedures used to accomplish a task — that program the machines.
“I think we adults are intimidated by technology, (but) kids don’t have that fear,” computer science teacher Trish Dunbar said. “Kids can absorb the informationat such a young age. The parents don’t even know what an algorithm is.”
In Dunbar’s class, many of her students started learning about basic coding as early as kindergarten.
But that’s not unusual these days.
From working with basic robotics in the lower grades to understanding cyber security in high school, the Douglas County School District has worked to incorporate technology into its curriculum. DCSD students have tablets and computers available to use at every grade level and teachers have worked to make sure technology plays a role in their lesson plans.
According to a 2013 study of K-12 teachers by PBS LearningMedia — an education-focused digital arm of the Public Broadcasting Service — three-quarters of teachers surveyed link educational technology to a growing list of benefits, saying technology enables them to reinforce and expand on content.
A 2013 Pew Research study of 2,462 Advanced Placement and National Writing Project teachers found that 73 percent of teachers said they and/or their students use their mobile phones in the classroom or to complete assignments. The same study revealed that 45 percent report they or their students use e-readers and 43 percent use tablet computers in the classroom or to complete assignments.
“I feel like it gives our students a huge advantage,” DCSD Superintendent Erin Kane said. “Programing is really big and it’s getting bigger every year. It is one of the industries that has the largest percentage of unfilled, highly paid positions. Why wouldn’t we prep our kids for that?”
Blending curriculum, technology
Mandie McQueen, a first-grade teacher at Prairie Crossing Elementary in Parker, said her students are using technology on a daily basis.
“We are very fortunate to have an abundance of technology at our school,” Mcqueen said. “Grades first through sixth have a Chromebook for each student. Kindergarten has one iPad Mini for every two students. Teachers also have the ability to check out a class set of MacBook Pros and iPads for a variety of uses.”
The school district is close to achieving its goal of having a technological device for every one of its 67,000 students, Chief Technology Officer Gautam Sethi said. In the younger grades, students mostly use tablets, while in the upper grades laptops are more common. Devices are available to be checked out from the schools and students are encouraged to bring their own devices to school if they have them.
Stephanie Duval, a second-grade teacher at Prairie Crossing, said she allows her students to choose how they will write about new topics in class, whether it’s by using paper and pencil or by using online writing tools.
“They can add pictures or graphics and show their understanding of new content,” Duval said.
In recent years, the district also has expanded wireless internet access to nearly all of its buildings and has encouraged students to bring and use personal devices. DSCD has between 45,000 and 50,000 computers, tablets and other devices, with an additional 5,000 being added every year.
Krisie Stovall, a second-grade teacher at Copper Mesa Elementary School in Highlands Ranch, has been teaching her students about geography and mapping skills.
She brought in iPad-controlled Bee Bots similar to the ones used at Redstone Elementary to teach about longitude, latitude and how to use a compass.
Using a big map spread out on the floor, she had students find different points by programing the coordinates into the Bee Bots.
“They not only had a great time but i really think it helped them understand,” Stovall said.
Stovall said she uses technology in the classroom daily and can even find herself asking her students for help.
“They are super comfortable with it,” Stovall said. “ Sometimes they know more than I do and they can help me out with it.”
Stovall’s use of the Bee Bots is an example of how teachers are incorporating technology to go beyond the basics.
“These kids are growing up with so much technology around them, having one more computer doesn’t really engage them as much anymore,” Sethi said. “The technology itself is so much simpler. It is not the way we used to learn programing on big computers with green screens. Now, it’s just drag and drop, but with that they learn the same intricacies. They learn to write the neatest amount of code in the least amount of lines.”
Linda Conway is the head of DCSD’s Innovation and Design Center in Castle Rock. Over the past five years, she has been working to remake the district’s libraries into collaborative learning commons — the kind of large, open work areas one would expect to find at a tech company.
“When we go and sit down with a principal or a librarian,” Conway said, “we listen and find out what their vision is, what the learning looks like in their school, and find out how we can transform the space to fit the learning, rather than vice versa.”
With the younger grades, Conway said there is more hands-on learning in the library environment. Tactile objects for students to work with are important. As students move up, more and more advanced technology skills are being used. At the high school level, students are more concerned about the research tools, she said.
In April, Colorado House Bill 16-1198 passed the Legislature, giving high school students in the state the opportunity to take computer science or coding classes for credit toward graduation in math and science.
The bill will help make computer science a more integrated part of the curriculum, said Sethi, who expects schools will eventually want to expand coding and technology into the lower grade levels as cornerstones of the curriculum.
“We need to find new pathways,” Sethi said. “We’re working with the middle and high schools to figure out where we go from here.”
Preparing for future
TeacherNicky DeBolt runs the CyberPatriot program at Highlands Ranch High School.
CyberPatriots is a national program created by the Air Force Association — an independent nonprofit group focused on education and promoting public understanding of aerospace— seven years ago as an educational program to inspire high school students toward careers in cyber security or STEM fields.
“I don’t want to say this is a hacking program — in fact, they really discourage using the word hacking,” DeBolt said. “It’s about defense. We defend against hackers and vulnerabilities.”
In simulations, students are given a computer with an image. They are told what types of programs they have been allotted and which users are authorized. Their job is to configure and defend the system to withstand an attack from an outside group.
Senior Adam Klein has been doing robotics since about eighth grade. But he said the kind of coding in robotics is very different from the coding in CyberPatriots.
“This is a lot of holistic technological understanding,” Klein said. “It was a steep leaning curve for me.”
Klein plans to pursue a career in technology.
“The cyber security field I find fascinating because the fear of being hacked and not having network security is so prevalent today that knowing how security works and what it means to not have it is valuable.”
Sonja Coy, also a senior, had some experience in coding before joining CyberPtriots, but learned more from the hands-on work she has done in the class.
“For example, password length is more important than having different numbers or characters,” Coy said. “If you have a 12characterpassword it is better than having a four-character password that has dollar signs or something. The more possible combinations the better.”
The district works with each school to determine what ways technology can be incorporated into learning, Sethi said. Each school commits to it at a different level.
“It’s what works best for you,” Sethi said. “Do you want to integrate technology into your math class? Or do you want it to be a stand-alone? We’ll help you though it.”
Superintendent Kane, who has a degree in applied mathematics and computer science from the University of Colorado and who spent 10 years in the tech industry, said DCSD schools are ahead of the curve.
“Our schools are very well-equipped with technology,” Kane said. “I feel like it gives our students a huge advantage.”