Whittier Elementary to begin computer science classes

Clinton's Whittier Elementary School has been awarded a $50,000 grant through the Iowa Department of Education and the Governor's STEM Advisory Council. The grants are earmarked for computer science instruction at elementary schools. Clinton Herald file photo

CLINTON — Elementary schools in Clinton were passed over during the first round of state computer science grant awards, but when Gov. Kim Reynolds announced this month that six additional elementary schools will receive $50,000, Whittier Elementary School was on the list.

Awarded through the Iowa Department of Education and the Governor's STEM Advisory Council, the grants are earmarked for computer science instruction at elementary schools.

"Computer science is one of the 21st-century skills," said Whittier Principal Brian Kenney.

Whittier is one of 12 schools across the state to receive the grant.

"It will allow us to put together a curriculum for our kids," Kenney said.

"We were lucky because they were going to award just six," Kenney said.

The 2019 Iowa Legislature appropriated an additional $1 million for the science, technology, engineering and math Advisory Council, which allowed the Council to award $300,000 to six additional schools.

"We found out we got the grant a couple of weeks ago," Kenney said.

The school formed a committee to create a curriculum that is "engaging and purposeful and really focuses on actively engaged learning," Kenney said.

Whittier fourth-grade teacher Sarah Shepherd and Assistant Director and Youth Services Librarian of Clinton Public Library Gabriella Torres collaborated to write the grant, Kenney said.

"[Shepherd] is very big into innovative learning," Kenney said. "She really does use technology to enhance learning."

Torres, along with library Information Technology Coordinator Eric Kershner, has collaborated with Shepherd on projects for the school as well as for the library.

"I work very closely with Mrs. Shepherd," Torres said. "She was really helpful for me to get the Make Space [at the library]."

Torres and Kershner have presented programs to Whittier students and took an active role in exploring what a computer science program for elementary students could look like.

"Eric helped come up with the list of equipment that they could purchase with the funds," Torres said, and Torres offered library computer programs, especially those offered during the summer when school is not in session, to supplement the school's computer curriculum.

"Miss Gabi and the Clinton Public Library is a great resource," Kenney said.

"We see technology as an extension of kids' learning. It's like a pencil or a notebook," Kenney said.

Technology is constantly changing, and trying to stay ahead of the changes is a challenge.

Students live with technology, Kenney said. "Often they know more than we do." Computers will most certainly be part of their futures, and Whittier intends to prepare students for that.

Much of the Whittier curriculum will be based on recommendations from the Computer Science Teachers Association.

"They're just a nice resource for us," Kenney said.

The school will probably implement computer science in a couple of classrooms during the next school year and expand it as teachers gain experience with the curriculum, Kenney said.

Teachers have discussed partnering with local industries and computer science mentors to show students how computer science is used in real-life situations.

"We have a vision of maybe going to work sites," Kenney said. "We believe kids should start thinking about careers in second and third grades, honestly. They need to think about their futures and see that there is a positive future for them."

"Currently there is no computer science instruction at any of the Clinton elementary schools," Kenney said.

Having such a curriculum will help students "become future ready. We want our kids to be prepared.

"Our goal is to reach every learner," Kenney said. "Sometimes we forget our advanced kids. They deserve the same opportunities for their brains to grow as anyone else does."

Students who struggle can benefit from the hands-on nature of computer science as well, Kenney said.

A portion of the grant money will be used for training. Additional funds will be used to purchase hardware and software to create a computer science framework for kindergarten through fifth-grade classes, Kenney said.

The school hopes to introduce at least a third of its students to computer science in the first year of the program and to have all of its students through a computer science course by the end of the second year.

"We're pretty excited," Kenney said.

A native of Centerville, Winona comes to the Clinton Herald after writing for the Ottumwa Courier for two years.