Missoula teachers look to bring coding into the classroom

Teachers from Missoula to West Yellowstone gathered in Missoula on Sunday to participate in the inaugural Teachers Teaching Tech program offered by the Big Sky Code Academy. (Martin Kidston/Missoula Current)

By Martin Kidston/Missoula Current

Logical thinking and Sunday mornings aren’t typically spoken in the same phrase, though for a handful of teachers from across Montana, their morning coffee went nicely with an introduction to binary code and computational thinking.

Amid April showers, the Big Sky Code Academy hosted its inaugural Teachers Teaching Tech training class on Sunday morning at Lewis and Clark Elementary School in Missoula.

There, 24 teachers from Missoula to West Yellowstone buckled down before computers and occasional puzzles to gain the skills needed to bring computer science into the classroom, starting with children as young as 5 years old.

“They can bring this back to their classroom and integrate this curriculum into any digital literacy program they may be teaching,” said Code Academy founder Devin Holmes. “We have folks who don’t necessarily teach math or science, but you can bring coding into anything, and that’s what they’re learning.”

Since its launch last April, the Big Sky Code Academy has led several coding boot camps geared toward adults. It also has expanded its program offerings through Montana Code Girls – an after-school programming course designed to encourage young women to pursue a career in technology.

In a move partially precipitated by a request from the Missoula County Public Schools, the Code Academy applied for – and was selected – to serve as a Professional Learning Partner with Code.org last fall.

Holmes said the partnership enables the academy to serve as a regional hub in the global computer science education movement. The course offers professional development to educators like those who gathered in Missoula for the Montana program’s inaugural course.

“We want to show them the tools so they can bring it back into their classroom and integrate it into what they’re teaching the kids, and expose our K-5 students to computer science at that young age,” said Holmes. “We want to create the opportunity for students of any age to learn coding and computer science.”

Sunday’s lessons weren’t restricted to the computer. Teachers paired up in teams to perform logic-based tasks, such as building puzzles or pairing colored squares – intended to represent binary code arranged from ones and zeros.

Brenda Brooks, a retired elementary school math teacher in Great Falls who now volunteers, said the skills will be useful in her classroom, where the attention span of third-graders is always a factor.

“My school does a pretty good job integrating computers into other curricula, but they don’t have any actual coding classes,” Brooks said. “I’m going to be able to introduce the kids into the whole logical process, the step-by-step of coding. The kids really want to do it, they just don’t have anyone to teach them.”

The state’s lack of a computer science curricula hasn’t gone unnoticed, leaving Montana educators to try it on their own. Yet that effort hasn’t resulted in a greater number of students taking the AP computer science exam, nor has it boosted the number of Montana college students looking to pursue a degree in the subject.

Devin Holmes

Both factors have placed the state at an economic disadvantage when competing for jobs and growing companies around emerging technologies, Holmes said.

“From a workforce development perspective, it puts us at a disadvantage because we’re not requiring those 21st century skills for our elementary, middle and high-school students,” Holmes said.

“There’s a very strong correlation between students who study computer science and take the AP exam in high school, and the number of those who go on to study that in college. You have to start young. We can’t start at higher ed.”

Lander Bachert, program director of Teachers Teaching Tech, said the effort is catching on in Montana, and the program is gaining attention. The Big Sky Code Academy plans to expand the effort over the coming months.

“Teachers in Montana are aware that we’re in need of some computer science training, and our programs are free and easy to get to,” she said. “This is our first one. We have a couple more planned throughout the summer, and we’ll expand it throughout the state next year.”

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at info@missoulacurrent.com