Who says coding is just for STEM classes?
North Star Academy in Newark is embedding computational thinking – a broad skill set that includes coding and data science – into five courses for ninth and tenth graders, including Spanish, Ancient World History, Biology, Chemistry, and Geometry.
The initiative is possible because of a five-year, $4 million Education Innovation and Research grant from the U.S. Department of Education awarded to Uncommon Schools, which operates North Star Academy.
Research has shown that many Black and Latinx students have internalized negative stereotypes implying they don’t belong in computer science. Nationwide, only 6% of students taking AP Computer Science exams were Black, 16% were Latinx, and 31% were women in 2020, according to a report in Code.org, a nonprofit dedicated to computer science.
The goal of North Star Academy’s program is ensuring that all students are exposed to coding early on, so they will be more likely to opt into advanced computer science classes.
“We want all our high school students to gain confidence in this realm and reject widespread misconceptions that only certain tech-savvy students can handle its rigor,” said Allison Johnson, the Uncommon Schools architect of the program.
“Our hypothesis is that if we help students build an identity in computer science and show them that coding is for them – by making it engaging, accessible, and relevant to their personal interests – they will be more likely to take a computer science course in high school and pursue it as a major in college,” she said.
Johnson won a Milken Award in 2015 after 100% of her North Star students passed the AP Computer Science exam.
Employment in the computer and IT sector is projected to grow 15% from 2021 to 2031 by federal estimates, with more than 418,000 openings yearly nationwide. The median annual wage for this field topped $97,000 last year, more than double the median for all occupations. Beyond that, many jobs outside of technology now require familiarity with basic tech skills.
North Star and other Uncommon schools are embedding programming projects in general education courses so students won’t need to self-select into computer science to enjoy its immense satisfaction.
Students are using the techniques in a range of classes, including language classes. For instance, Spanish students used Scratch, a block-based coding language, to build a Spanish vocabulary app and then quiz their peers using the games they had built.
“The project goes directly against the myths about computer science, such as that coding feels more natural in science or math than in humanities classes,” Johnson said. “The truth is that Coding is its own skill that feels just as new in Geometry as it does in Spanish.”