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Uncommon Schools Integrate Coding Lessons With Humanities

The charter school organization was awarded a $4 million Education Innovation and Research grant from the U.S. Department of Education early last year and launched a pilot program at a handful of high schools.

A student working on a laptop with a partially finished robot sitting on the table next to them.
Uncommon Schools, a public charter school organization with more than 50 schools across New York, New Jersey and Massachusetts, is attracting underserved students to careers in computer science by embedding coding lessons into not only STEM courses, but standard humanities classes.

Uncommon Schools launched a new coding program at five of its nine high schools at the start of the current academic year, supported by a five-year, $4 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Education Innovation and Research (EIR) program that supports projects for underserved students.

Program director Allison Johnson, a Milken Educator Award recipient in 2015, is looking at the first two years of the program as a de facto pilot to work out the kinks. She said the first embedded courses are for ninth and 10th grade students in geometry, biology, chemistry, Spanish 1 and ancient world history courses.

“The reason we chose to incorporate both STEM and humanities courses, which I think is a fairly unique approach, is that we really wanted to increase the likelihood that any one particular student was able to engage in an experience where they found coding to be something that was engaging,” Johnson told Government Technology. “Something that felt relevant to another field that they might be interested in, something that felt accessible, and again, to sort of increase the likelihood that they started to form their own identity in computer science and would then opt into a course later on.”

With the help of New Jersey-based research and consulting organization Mathematica, an independent evaluation partner in the program, Uncommon Schools is testing the program at five high schools first, with the other four serving as the control group in a two-year pilot. This will allow Johnson to assess the program’s impact, based on feedback from teachers and students, and tweak it as needed before rolling it out to the four remaining high schools.

“The motivation behind it was to increase the participation and success of all of our high school students in computer science all across our network,” Johnson said. “The way we are aiming to do that is by making coding and computational thinking engaging, accessible and relevant.”

The pilot involves a one-week coding module per semester in each of the participating classes, during which students partner up to collaborate on a project, Johnson said. Going forward, she said they intend to integrate coding lessons more organically with other subjects throughout the semester.

Johnson said a geometry teacher acknowledged that the program brought a level of collaboration they hadn’t seen in class since before COVID-19, and a Spanish 1 class used the block-based coding language Scratch to build their own Spanish vocabulary quiz game.

Uncommon Schools wants the program to result in more computer science studies at all its sites and better access to STEM fields for the underserved students, a news release said last February. Additionally, the charter would like to see higher enrollment in AP computer science classes and an increase of students pursuing computer science-related degrees and careers, it said.

Johnson said advancing the program to a point where all students are exposed to these fields will require some professional development for teachers.

“We can’t help the students build their self-efficacy in computer science if we don’t do the same for teachers in their classrooms,” she said.

Though the sample size of the program is not that large, Johnson said, already there are signs of progress.

“We did see that in some of the Spanish classes that we observed, and some of the teachers we talked to, that some of their students who typically might not have been super engaged in vocabulary lessons or lecture-style lessons were a lot more engaged when they were able to put their Spanish into context, using Scratch and building an app,” she said. “But it’s a big project, and there are a lot of hurdles — both that we anticipated and that we didn’t — and we are eager to figure out how to overcome those hurdles as we move into year two.”

Generating interest in computer science has been a hot-button issue nationwide. Last summer, hundreds of companies, organizations and academic leaders signed a letter urging states to incorporate the studies into K-12 curricula. Recognizing the need, some schools have started providing coding lessons to students, whether it be through after-school programs or integration with other subjects.
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.