Alum teaches coding to fifth-grade class thanks to UW-Eau Claire summer program

| Judy Berthiaume

As an experienced fifth-grade teacher, Katie Albin is used to hearing her students complain about schoolwork.

After all, many 10-year-olds prefer recess to a math lesson.

So imagine Albin’s surprise when her students recently began complaining about having to stop too soon when doing their classroom work.

Why the change of heart?

With the help of UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings program and community partners, Albin has added computer coding to her fifth-grade curriculum at Sherman Elementary School in Eau Claire.

“My students are so engaged in the coding unit that they actually whine and say ‘No!’ when I tell them it’s time to stop,” says Albin. “I love that they are enjoying the unit that much and don’t want to stop.”

Last summer, Albin was part of Blugold Beginnings’ coding camp, a weeklong summer program at UW-Eau Claire that introduces area youth to computer science.

While the camp has been offered for several years, last year for the first time three Eau Claire Area School District teachers — including Albin — joined the 50 Chippewa Valley 6th-12th graders who participated.

Educators were included in the camp so they could learn how to incorporate coding into their own teaching, something teachers say is valuable given the interest youth have in technology, says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, executive director for diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire.

After the summer camp, Albin worked with representatives from Jamf, UW-Eau Claire and Chippewa Valley Code to identify a platform for coding curriculum, modify it to fit the instructional time available, and to roll out a coding unit in her classroom.

In January, the UW-Eau Claire graduate began teaching her first coding unit as part of her science curriculum.

Albin’s fifth-graders were excited from the beginning.

“Through the coding unit, my students have been more engaged than ever and using their problem solving skills in a whole new way,” Albin says. “It has opened their eyes to a whole new world of future possibilities, and the concepts and logical reasoning skills they’ve learned have also helped increase their problem-solving abilities in other subjects like math.”

Best of all, by bringing technology-related lessons into her classroom she is reaching the students who often are the least excited about school.

“One of my favorite parts of this coding unit has been how it’s made school enjoyable for some students who typically don’t like school,” Albin says. “Suddenly we are doing something that is of real interest to them. I’ve seen such a dramatic change in student engagement since the integration of the unit.”

Thanks to lessons learned in last summer’s coding camp, Albin can help her students see how coding connects to math and science concepts, such as variables and order of operations, which are part of the fifth-grade curriculum.

“I can show them how it integrates with what they already worked on,” Albin says. “It’s powerful when we can help them see the real life, everyday applications of the concepts they learn in the classroom.”

The coding unit also will help younger students begin to understand that their interest in technology can lead to any number of potential careers, Albin says.

Late elementary school is the perfect time to introduce coding to students because they have had enough math and science to start to understand it, Albin says.

“These kids have never lived in a world without technology,” Albin says. “We need to teach them the power of technology so they are better prepared for their futures. At this young age, they are sponges and absorb everything.”

Introducing coding in fifth grade also will prepare students to take advantage of the many technology-related educational opportunities offered in Eau Claire middle and high schools, she says.

Albin says she has long been interested in integrating coding into her classroom, but she did not know how to go about it since she did not have a background in computer science.

The summer camp proved to be the perfect way to jump-start her learning, she says, adding that it also connected her with IT professionals who could help her turn her ideas into actual lessons.

Thanks to a grant from Jamf Nation Global Foundation, the 2018 summer coding camp — July 16-20 — will include 10 teachers and provide 10 scholarships for low-income youth to participate.

The hope, Thesing-Ritter says, is that this year’s camp will serve up to 100 kids.

In addition to helping provide area youth with hands-on experience with coding, local IT professionals also share their expertise through panel discussions and offsite visits.

These professionals welcome the opportunity to mentor and pass along their unique skillset, says Becky Wurzer, Jamf Nation Global Foundation administrator.

"At Jamf we place a high value on problem solving, collaboration and our community,” says Ryan Yohnk, principal software engineer at Jamf Software “The code camp is a fantastic way to help foster these traits in the community while exposing students to the valuable skill of programming." 

Working with Jamf, local IT professionals and teachers to bring coding into more classrooms reflects UW-Eau Claire’s commitment to collaborating with the community and K-12 educators to prepare all kids for the workforce, Thesing-Ritter says.

Business and industry leaders are providing intellectual resources and donor support to improve curriculum to meet the needs of their workforce, K-12 educators are investing time and energy in responding to the needs of the community and the interest of their students, and the university is providing leadership and enrichment opportunities for educators and youth, she says.

“It’s an awesome partnership,” Thesing-Ritter says. “This is a perfect example of the kind of seamless educational support among the community, K-12 education and university education that we want to foster to help all kids reach their full potential and build a strong workforce in the Chippewa Valley.”

Photo caption: Katie Albin teaches a coding unit to her fifth-graders at Sherman Elementary School.