I am always looking for ways to inspire my students — especially middle school girls — to grow their knowledge and skills in STEM subjects, particularly in the realm of computer science. So it was a great find when I discovered Google CS First.
CS First is a free web-based program that exposes students to computer science through video tutorials and modules that students participate in as after-school, in-school and summer programs. Designed for grades 4-8, the clubs teach students about computer science and coding in a hands-on, learning-by-doing way.
I immediately signed up and solicited some local volunteers, or " "gurus," " to come and help teach computer science to my students. The great thing is that the gurus do not need a computer science background. CS First is so user friendly that anyone with an interest in helping kids can teach it using the scripts, video tutorials and other materials provided by Google.
Gurus simply need to follow the guidelines, give feedback to students and help them develop a better understanding of computer science through the activities. Most important, gurus share their enthusiasm for computer science.
Once you sign up for the free program, the support from Google CS First is tremendous. We requested a loaner set of 30 headphones and peripheral materials for the students, which included Google CS First passports, sticker-badges for each day's modules, detailed scripts, certificates of completion and directions.
Signing in with a Google account under the " "Get Started" " tab will start the ball rolling, and training resources will help teachers and volunteers get a feel for what a typical CS First session is like.
All the coding activities use Scratch, a free kid-friendly programming language and online community, and the teaching materials are available for free download on the CS First site. These supporting materials include video tutorials and scripts, making it seamless for anyone — volunteers, teachers, parents — to pull off a coding class like a pro.
Something for everyone
Google CS First's modules are engaging and cover a variety of themes, making the program enticing to students with varying interests:
Music & Sound. Students use the computer to play musical notes, create a music video and build an interactive music display while learning how programming is used to create music.
Game Design. Students learn basic video game coding concepts by making different types of games, including racing, platform, launching and more.
Storytelling. Students use computer science to tell fun and interactive stories. Storytelling emphasizes creativity by encouraging club members to tell a unique story each day.
Art. Students create animations, interactive artwork, photograph filters and other exciting, artistic projects.
Social Media. Students create fun social media applications and games while learning about the computer science concepts that enable these programs to work.
Friends. Students create projects for a friend! They can sign up with a friend or make a new friend in the club. Projects include telling the story of how the friendship started, making a cooperative game and imagining a company together.
Fashion & Design. Students learn how computer science and technology are used in the fashion industry while building fashion-themed programs, like a fashion walk, a stylist tool and a pattern maker.
Each module includes screencast tutorials that are informative and make it easy for both students and volunteers to follow along. Directions are embedded, and features, such as the agenda and showcase, are part of the club structure. The agenda comes with a timer that helps keep the club on track and breaks down the sessions into segments with a countdown visible and audible to the facilitators. The best part is that the agenda can be customized so the club host can specify the start and end times to ensure that all tasks and activities are completed by the end of each session.
Scaffolding the learning
Each module is designed as an eight-day session. The first day is a basic introduction to the club and the Scratch platform. Students are encouraged to explore and build something " "surprising" " using Scratch.
The screencasts are more than tutorials. They also introduce students to the real world of coding by explaining how computer scientists solve problems in fields ranging from medicine to robotics.
Moving on from the first day, the students are led through a series of structured tutorials to help them build a portfolio of their own projects. At the same time, they are encouraged to spend time outside the official club times to customize their creations and add their own touches to their projects.
In the Music & Sound module, for example, the projects include manipulating sprites and sound effects in various combinations to create interactive art, music videos and dance effects. In building these projects, the students are sequentially introduced to various key blocks, such as the repeat loop and if-then commands. These help build their foundation in computational thinking so that they gradually gain the confidence and ability to tweak and create their own versions of these initial projects. Students are encouraged to share ideas and collaborate to find solutions so learning happens almost unconsciously in a supportive environment through engaging tasks.
Built-in sharing and collaborating
At the end of each session, students have the opportunity to celebrate their coding projects through a scheduled sharing time. Students look forward to this time to share their creations with their neighbors, and the room is abuzz with " "Wow! Cool! How did you do that?" "
In the game design module, students can create everything from a maze game to their own version of Flappy Bird while personalizing their creations with different sprites and backgrounds.
The support that Google CS First provides is outstanding. The staff responds to concerns almost immediately. When I had questions about specific students who were having difficulty sharing their project links, they were able to investigate and come up with a solution.
I host a girl's lunchtime coding club in the computer lab where we go through the day's activities and share projects with one another. I have had a great time getting to know the girls and their interests. They respond with delight at their new creations and are immediately inspired to customize projects with pictures of their favorite stars and music.
In the Game Design module, students learn to create games that they want to play, and CS First equips them with the foundation to do so. All the challenges that students previously faced when creating games, such as how to keep track of points and how to use the blocks to set up launching types of games, are answered through these modules and broken down into manageable chunks.
The experience for the students has become less about learning a few basic programming blocks and more about building a mindset and culture of ownership and agency, where they are in the drivers' seat, taking control of the direction of their learning and channeling their creativity. This suite of tools allows educators to address many of the ISTE Standards for Students , including Creativity and Innovation, Communication and Collaboration, and Critical Thinking, Problem Solving, and Decision Making.
Best of all, students love it. Don't just take my word for it. Read the feedback of one student who went through CS First:
When working on the CS First program I encountered many problems but one memorable one would be when I was making the launcher game and I couldn't figure out how to create a clone of the enemy when the player touched the finish line. I overcame it by watching the video explaining how to do it a few more times and solved each of the little pieces before solving the big picture. Some of the little pieces I solved before solving the big pieces were making it face in a random direction, having it bounce on the edge, hide the spawn shark, and making it spawn when the score went up by one. My biggest accomplishment while in CS First was when I was making the launcher game and I figured out how to make a clone for each point scored. The way I did this was by putting an " "if, then" " statement down under a forever loop that said, "If touching finish line, then change score by one, create a clone of " "shark," " and go back to the beginning. I had lots of fun making these projects.
Most important, the program has ignited student interest in computer science and is likely altering the career trajectories of some of the students. Informal experiences with computer science, such as Google CS First, are full of impact. There is nothing more powerful than learning by doing and learning that you can do anything, including computer science.
Janice Mak is an instructional coach and teacher in the Paradise Valley Unified School District. She helps her students learn through an interdisciplinary and " "learning by doing" " mindset. Read her blog and follow her on Twitter @jmakaz.
Want to connect with other educators who are passionate about computer science education? Join the ISTE Computing Teachers Network.