Small School Innovations Helping Computer Science Students Stay Ahead During Pandemic


Thursday, December 17th 2020, 4:18 pm
By: Ryan Welton


OKLAHOMA CITY -

For nearly nine months, school districts across the state have been challenged by the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many districts were forced to innovate to allow for distance learning.

For some small school districts, the innovation was just a natural step in a progression they started years ago.

Students in the Maple Public School District, a pre-K through 8th grade district roughly 15 minutes from El Reno in Canadian County, are currently in distance-learning.

Unlike other districts’ distance learning growing pains, Maple Public School District’s computer science curriculum was able to thrive in 2020, even in a rural district where Internet access isn't guaranteed. This was with the help of some pre-pandemic alterations to the curriculum.

"I don't even have Internet at my house, and that's (the same) for a lot of families," said Miranda Lewis, one of the district's teachers and the driving force behind Maple's computer education.

In addition to her duties as a social studies teacher, Lewis is teaching computer classes for students in grades 3, 4, 5, 7 and 8. Those classes are made available to all of Maple's 200 students. Some of them, such as those in pre-K, might only participate once a week, while those in 6th to 8th grade study computers every day.

From a computer science curriculum perspective, there's something for everybody. But until 2018, there hadn't been grade-specific standards in Oklahoma.

Now, there are five standards of activities:

1 -- Computer systems

2 -- Networking and internet

3 -- Data analysis

4 -- Algorithms and programming

5 -- Impacts of computer science

One point of understanding is the difference between computer application and computer science. The former involves computer functionality that can be applied across any field of study, such as a software system in which students do math.

Computer science is the study of computers themselves and what you can do with them, such as programming, networking, data warehousing, etc.

When it comes to the latter, most Oklahoma students participating in computer science curricula eventually study how to code Python, one of the most popular programming languages to learn and one of the most in-demand professionally. Some students also study Java or C#.

Like it has with virtually everything, COVID-19 has had an impact on computer science education. Not only has the pandemic interrupted the level of collaboration student programmers are able to undertake, students are also impacted by the basics.

"The impacts that the pandemic has had on computer science aren't unique, underscoring the inequality of the digital divide," said Karen Leonard, the state director of Education Technology and Computer Science.

She said the primary problems for school districts are access to devices and quality WiFi. A recent survey done in coordination with the Oklahoma State Department of Education found that 1 in 4 students in Oklahoma didn't have Internet access at home.

Leonard said that with the help of the Education Stabilization Fund (ESF), the state Department of Education was able to award 50,000 hotspots to 175 districts across the state.

That's a big deal to bridge that gap.

"Geography shouldn't be a primary limitation of access," said Levi Patrick, Oklahoma's Assistant Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction.

Patrick noted that, much like it is with math and reading, computer science is a discipline that strengthens a student's ability to do other work.

"If English and math are priorities, what role does computer science play?" he asked.

Leonard also cited Freedom Public Schools in Woods County and Norwood Public Schools in Cherokee County as two other small Oklahoma school districts that have excelled in adapting to the pandemic when it comes to computer science.

There is power in the Oklahoma small school, Patrick explained.

"One person with the capacity has the chance to influence the system," he said.

Miranda Lewis, Maple Public Schools

For Maple, that “one person” has been Lewis.

She's been with the district for 11 years and is quick to praise Superintendent Bill Derryberry, the Maple school board and staff, calling them "unmatched" when it comes to being "child-focused" and "future-focused."

But the same could be said for Lewis, who many years ago sought out solutions to a common rural-school problem: How to support students in 4H and FFA, who would often have to be physically away from school for long periods of time.

"We really encourage that (extracurricular) involvement, but it also means they can be away for a week at a time," she said.

Lewis taught herself Google Classroom many years ago, and then she discovered Acellus Learning Accelerator. Maple was using Acellus for math and reading, but she extended its capabilities for the district to coding and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education.

One of the aspects of Acellus that Lewis particularly likes is that it will move quick-learners to a tougher academic rigor, allowing them to grow at their own pace.

"They'll work at their own pace," she said. "They'll do a video and apply it, do a video and apply it."

It should be noted that the same goes for Lewis, who spends some of her free time working ahead to learn so that she can help her students.

"Sometimes, we have to do it together to figure it out," she said.

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The Oklahoma Media Center, launched by Local Media Foundation with financial support from Inasmuch Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation, is a collaborative of 18 Oklahoma newsrooms that includes print, broadcast and digital partners. The OMC’s first project is Changing Course: Education & COVID. Griffin Communications is part of the collaborative, and this story is part of that effort.