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Community Coding Clubs Proliferate at Arkansas School

With 25 clubs, the Fort Smith school district has one of the largest community coding programs in the state. They are a result of an initiative by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to provide computer science to as many Arkansas students as possible.

by Jadyn Watson-Fisher, Times Record / September 24, 2019
An AI-powered robot playing a video game at SXSW in Austin, Texas. Government Technology/Eyragon Eidam

(TNS) Robots aren't supposed to take over the world any time soon, but Fort Smith students are getting so good at computer science that might happen faster than expected.

The Fort Smith Board of Education heard an update Monday on the community coding clubs that debuted this spring.

"We have 25 community coding clubs, one of the largest community coding efforts in the state," said Fort Smith Superintendent Doug Brubaker. This translated to about 200 students involved.

Eden Buergler, Fort Smith technology integration specialist, said students had fun working with the different forms of technology and facilitating teachers have implemented activities and lessons from the clubs into their regular classroom instruction.

The clubs were designed to bridge the gap between primary school education and high school computer science initiatives by piquing the interest of younger students, particularly fifth- through eighth-graders, with coding projects, 3D printers, robots, drones and tiny programmable computers. Even though the curriculum was designed for middle school students, anyone in kindergarten through eighth grade was welcome to join.

In a series of short videos from one of the clubs, students showed off their Spherobots and micro:bits. Both items were programmable via computers or iPads. One student created a random "rock, paper, scissors" game with her micro:bit, which would select one of the three options when shook. Another student worked with a friend to communicate using his Spherobot, a round robot, and his partner's bot responded.

School board president Susan McFerran said she attended a club and was "so impressed" by the students being eager to teach adults what they learned.

"I'm really not familiar with coding, and they did such an excellent job explaining it and enjoying explaining the coding," McFerran said. "(They) let me do some of it, so it could move around. ... It sounds like we're kind of topping the state with this, don't you think?"

The clubs also worked to initiate conversations with industry professionals to discuss career possibilities and what they were learning. Buergler said it was a bit intimidating at first, but once they found the right contacts, the interactions were beneficial to the clubs.

Students have access to a Google classroom with videos, instructional activities and competitions. Teachers can see the curriculum, training and other videos.

Buergler said 75% of the facilitators returned to work with this year's clubs and 25% attended special statewide training for teachers. The clubs were presented at the Hot Springs Technology Institute and Arkansas Association of Educational Administrators Student Showcase.

This fall, Buergler said there's a plan to develop student leaders during the fall clubs, so larger groups can be supported in the spring.

Fort Smith received this year nearly $25,000 from the Arkansas Department of Education to start the clubs. Funding went toward teacher training, stipends for teachers who hosted the clubs, a partnership with Fort Smith Public Libraries and different tools for the students to use.

Over the summer, several branches of the Fort Smith Public Library system hosted camps to continue providing opportunities to learn computer science even when classes weren't in session.

Buergler said there were students who weren't involved in the spring camps and adults interested in computer science.

She said the library system was provided similar technology from the state, but most of it was unused because of a lack of training. District facilitators were paid a stipend to work with the librarians on training, lesson development and leading the clubs.

Buergler said the district has agreed to independently fund the clubs this year, and the teachers just finished training this week.

"With the additional investment and time, we will be able to better track student interest and achievement across the district," Buergler said.

The camps are a result of an initiative started by Gov. Asa Hutchinson to provide computer science to as many Arkansas students as possible. Hutchinson said at his final fall 2019 computer science tour stop last week there has been a growth of students enrolled in these courses from 1,000 when he took office in 2015 to more than 8,000 now.

"The fact that Arkansas is leading the nation in computer science education, it stuns a few people," Hutchinson said at the time. "But then they say, 'Well, let's take a second look.' We're having technology companies locate here, because of the talent we're producing and the entrepreneurial spirit that we have. Technology will continue to be a part of our future."©2019 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.)

©2019 Times Record (Fort Smith, Ark.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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