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Blackbird Program Teaches Coding to Middle Schoolers

Partnering with Washington’s Bellevue School District on a two-week pilot program, the ed-tech company successfully prepared teachers to incorporate coding into core subjects after one day of training.

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

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

“We are always seeking ... opportunities that allow us to integrate computer science into core subjects,” Obaid told Government Technology in an email. “We saw a potential opportunity in which we can partner in developing and testing out a unit that integrates computer science concepts within science using text-based coding.”

Testing its "Coding as a Conduit" cross-curricular pilot program, Blackbird provided four teachers from two schools, who had no previous computer programming experience, with one day of training to cover a two-week unit. According to the news release, the two-week unit on magnetism was integrated into the school’s regular physics classes, challenging students to learn text-based computer programming basics so they could model their own physics 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 classes. All told, the instructors taught 18 sections of eighth grade science to 447 students.

Results indicated the program worked well within Blackbird’s target age range: 83 percent of those 447 students demonstrated the ability to code a physics simulation involving velocity and acceleration. They spent an average 3.3 hours learning and completed an average of 30.3 lessons, or 22.1 without hints.

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

“Going through two weeks of curriculum in a single day can leave you kind of drained. So, at the end of that day, I was not really sure how this was going to go,” Lynch told GovTech. “But (the teachers) all came back and said, ‘The kids ate it up.’ They really liked it. And we really liked it too.”

Lynch said the program helped Blackbird look at their curriculum through a different lens. He said the teachers and Blackbird had a debrief following the program, with Bellevue staff coming away from it looking to expand the program next year and involve 10 eighth grade teachers. Before then, Lynch said he intends to address some concerns the teachers had about the material, namely offering extension activities to students who worked at a quicker pace, and some support systems for students who fell behind.

“We believe it was a successful pilot of the material, and students were engaged, and (we) look forward to testing the materials again next year as a second pilot to learn more and adjust and modify based on feedback from our students and community,” Obaid said. He added that the district will also work on overcoming barriers that have made computer science careers more or less accessible to students depending on race and gender.

Blackbird's news release also indicated the company will create more “bite-sized” units, as Lynch calls them, that use coding to teach core science and math principles 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 standalone class, but they've been more receptive to the idea of integrating coding into core classes such as physics, science and math.

“Ears perked up from educators when you talk about small, bite-sized ways of introducing computer programming within classes that already exist,” he said. “We've really seen administrators who are worried about the master schedule be more interested in this approach. And teachers are much more willing to give it a try.”

Lynch said Blackbird's curriculum will allow for upward of six separate units in a single school year, building off of one another as they move along through each segment. Additionally, he said that Blackbird is attempting to build a catalog of lessons that give students a pathway to more complex computer programming skills if they want it.

Bellevue's was the latest Coding as a Conduit pilot program from Blackbird. The company has conducted four to date, with three more planned for the coming year.
Giovanni Albanese Jr. is a staff writer for the Center for Digital Education. He has covered business, politics, breaking news and professional soccer over his more than 15-year reporting career. He has a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Salem State University in Massachusetts.