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Bridge's New Computer Science Program Previews Citywide Changes

By Alex Nitkin | October 25, 2017 5:41am
 Bridge Elementary School's Jakub Koskinski and five classmates propose a plan for FoodPicker, a smartphone app that would let students vote on what the school cafeteria serves each day.
Bridge Elementary School's Jakub Koskinski and five classmates propose a plan for FoodPicker, a smartphone app that would let students vote on what the school cafeteria serves each day.
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DNAinfo/Alex Nitkin

DUNNING — Jakub Kosinski wants better lunch options.

So last Wednesday, the eigth-grader joined five of his classmates propose a solution in the form of a new smartphone app.

"Do you need real food?" Jakub said, gripping a poster board plotted with the mission statement and design specs of FoodPicker, the program his group spent the morning designing.

The pitch — promising students the ability to vote on their cafeteria choices every day — was one of more than a dozen dreamed up by students as part of Bridge Elementary's new computer science curriculum, representing the latest stage of Chicago Public Schools' growing effort to fold disciplines like programming and robotics into students' classroom time.

The course, developed at Bridge with the help of the non-profit Network For Teaching Entrepreneurship, backs up Silicon Valley-style marketing lessons with the fundamentals of computer software and hardware.

By June, Bridge's more than 207 seventh- and eighth-graders will have designed and launched their own apps, coded customized audio-visual presentations and brought life to screen animations. While they won't be using programming languages, they'll wade through the basics of using wire frames to design web pages.

They'll aso take apart and rebuild desktop computers and learn the fundamentals of robotics, according to Marisa Nokes, who teaches the course.

Steeping her lessons in the world of apps and computers lets Nokes sneak mathematical and problem-solving challenges into a landscape that feels familiar to a crowd born in 2003, she said.

"We have to remember that we're talking about eighth-graders who grew up in this world of cell phones, so they have all these technologies they know how to use," Nokes said. "But they don't necessarily know how they work ... and they can get excited about figuring it out."

Nokes had only taught math and science before last summer, when she attended a teacher development course funded by the non-profit CME Group Foundation.

The foundation is helping train teachers in 200 schools — more than a third of the entire city — to hurry them into compliance with CS4All, the CPS computer science initiative announced in 2013 to equip students with enough skills to grab a piece of the city's exploding tech scene.

CPS officials say they're on track to offer computer science classes at every high school in the city by next year, with plans to make it a graduation requirement by 2020. But administrators are still expanding, hoping to imbue programming principles in kids barely old enough to read, saidKassie Davis, director of the CME Group Foundation.

"There are some terrific programs offered at the kindergarten level, where you're having kids give instructions to move paper squares on the ground to go forward or sideways," Davis said. "So it's like a puzzle that's not even on a computer, but you're teaching logic and computational thinking at a young age."

At the junior high level, Bridge is probing for ways to extend that line of thinking across a wide array of subjects, Principal Chris Brake said.

Nokes' class is just one piece of a far-reaching technology curriculum being introduced at the Dunning elementary school this year, expanding the core "STEM" fields of science, technology, engineering and math into athletics, art and music classes, Brake said.

Principals such as Brake are confronting a world in which no subject can remain untouched by the twin revolutions of big data and mobile computing, he said.

"The whole face of education is really getting away from the old model of sitting in rows of desks and memorizing the capital of such-and-such," Brake said. "Now that we have these vast warehouses of knowledge at our fingertips, we have to evolve to be teaching children how to access and analyze that data."