When the state of Tennessee moved to mandate advanced computer science standards in grades K-8, Hamilton County Schools turned to the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga.
Dr. Stephanie Philipp, UTC assistant professor of education and interim director of the STEM Education Program, recently hosted 45 Hamilton County teachers—half of whom are UTC graduates, according to a show of hands.
Philipp’s half-day cohort was funded as part of a $300,000 grant from the National Science Foundation and instructed the teachers on how to use patterns, algorithms and abstraction—computational thinking skills – through unplugged activities and technology “to solve all kinds of tricky problems,” said Philipp, who was assisted by Michelle Bettis and Jessica Holloway with Hamilton County Schools’ Office of Innovation.
In one exercise, the teachers had 30 seconds to add numbers from 1 to 200 in this format: 1 + 2 = 3; 2 + 3 = 5, etc. Doing that kind of line-by-line addition would be impossible in half a minute, but not if you could quickly discern the pattern. There are 100 addition pairs in the equation, with the eventual answer of 20,100 total.
It works like this: Instead of starting with the first two numbers, add 1 plus 200 and get 201. Then two plus 199 also is 201. Thus, the sum of each pair is 201. If you take 100 pairs and multiply by 201, you get 20,100.
“It’s breaking the problem down into more manageable pieces,” Philipp said. “The state wants students to be very comfortable in how computational thinking works. Students can be empowered by computational thinking instead of victimized by it. If you see a pattern, you can usually figure out a possible solution.”
Hamilton County teachers and UTC graduates Rachel Potter, Kelly McClanahan and Julieta Goode said the cohort was enlightening. Goode said she even would use it to teach Spanish to sixth, seventh and eighth graders at Hunter Middle School.
“We can definitely use patterns when they’re conjugating verbs or making sentences. You have a stem and ending. Verbs may have a particular ending,” said Goode, who earned her UTC master’s in education in 2007 and has taught in county schools for 22 years. The Dominican Republic native also taught in Puerto Rico.
McClanahan, a Johnson City, Tennessee, native who earned her Master of Arts in elementary education from UTC, said the cohort presented county teachers with a leg up on the new state standards.
“This cohort allows us the advantage of learning the standards and becoming familiar with what is up and coming,” she said. “Computer skills and computational thinking are becoming more and more necessary in all aspects of our lives today. Looking at skills and tasks with strategies that are helpful in problem-solving are vital to our lives today. Computational thinking teaches children how to apply patterns, data and higher-level thinking strategies to solve both math and science problems along with everyday issues.
“Children know how to play games on computers and devices, but actually using them effectively for academic purposes is not taught in isolation,” McClanahan said. “It is so important that beginning at these young ages we teach them the skills they need. The standards are very developmentally appropriate and will enable children to be ready for ‘the next step’ as they move through the elementary grades. It will make the learning curve more child/student-friendly as they gain understanding in small steps and appropriate developmental stages.”
Potter, also a Middle Valley Elementary first-grade teacher, graduated with a UTC master’s degree in 2007.
“The idea of teaching computational thinking to first graders is very daunting,” she said. “To know that our standards are things we already are doing in the classroom and that it’s developmentally appropriate for our age of children made me feel a lot better. Especially since we are in a digital age and technology is so prevalent.
“Even our youngest learners are using technology every day,” Potter said. “It’s very important that they know what they’re doing and also to be safe.”
Philipp, whose husband, Dr. Craig Philipp, is an assistant professor in the UTC Department of Chemistry and Physics, joined UTC in 2019 and said the cohort was the first of its kind at UTC. The 2021 Gig City Computer Science grant goes to help the university’s research partnership with Hamilton County Schools and the local Public Education Foundation.
“Computational thinking is a thought process that people use to solve problems,” she explained. “It can be related to or lead up to using computers to solve these problems but often not involving computers at all. It’s like seeing patterns in a problem or a situation. For example, in language we do use patterns all the time. In English, there is a noun and then a verb. That’s a pattern.
“It’s not just for kids interested in computer science,” Philipp said. “It’s trying to have one to be computer science literate because of how computers are used everywhere nowadays. Otherwise, you would have to live completely off the grid and never go anywhere or interact with anyone to not know how computer science works. I even have to program my refrigerator to defrost.”