Alden Thorpe is the Computer Science Specialist at Mountain West Montessori Academy in Utah. He supports and helps teachers integrate computer science (CS) into the coursework they have already mapped out through cross-curricular content.
He joined us for a webinar in April 2023 and shared his insights into a cross-curricular approach to introducing CS into the classroom.
Take a look below for some of the Q&As we pulled from the recording above.
Skill Struck: We talk about the importance of cross-curricular studies all the time in education but, why do you think it's particularly important when it comes to CS?
Alden Thorpe: There are very few theoretical Computer Scientists who just do CS. CS is all about the application in the real world. A Computer Scientist working with hydraulic engineers, social engineers, or designers. And so computer science is not in a silo by itself. It’s a tool we use to do all of the other things. The biggest thing for me is giving students this vision.
When we were first rolling out CS a lot of students would say, “I want to be a Veterinarian, I don’t need CS, or a football coach or dancer.” I spent time trying to convince students that CS is everywhere: veterinarians, doctors, and designers all utilize CS. Now that we have AI coming out with generative videos, images, and text it’s even more integrated. That is my big why.
Skill Struck: Can you give us some examples of how you integrate CS into other subjects in the classroom?
Alden Thorpe: One of the easiest, most straightforward ways is with web design. For example: at our school, several classes are studying WW1 and the students need to do a presentation. For the presentation, they are building a website. So on one hand I am supporting them with the coding side and building the website with code. On the other side, they are working together to gather research and find reliable sources to put on their website. They are showing their assessment with their coding ability and the presentation of their knowledge. Transferring learning to a website works for every topic.
On lower end k-2. Focusing less on the coding aspects of CS and more on the essential skills like sequencing, problem-solving, and bringing those things in. For example: what is a sentence? How do we put sentences together? Then we talk about debugging the code for a robot. And then we jumble up a sentence or a word and they debug it to get it in the right order. They are learning the concept of paying close attention and fixing issues. So many of the core skills, aside from coding, are just life skills.
Understanding how to problem solve is especially important now that AI can code for you. For instance, basic math skills are so important but once you are out of school you don’t have to do that, you can just use a calculator. But to utilize a calculator you have to know what problem you’re solving. My engineer friends have not used Calculus since college. But because they know how to do it, they know what to tell the computer to do. If they didn’t know what problem they were solving, then they wouldn’t know what to tell the computer. So this is what AI is going to get us to. I can go to ChatGPT and it will spit out code for me but, if I don’t understand the code, or understand what my problem is, I can’t use it. So those core skills are going to be even more important than coding skills because they can be replaced with AI.
Skill Struck: How Important is it to introduce CS to lower grades?
Alden Thorpe: We started integrating CS two years ago and our now 6th graders are generally less interested than the 3rd-grade students that started with CS in the first grade. The 3rd graders are familiar with it and into it because we were able to engage them earlier. First and second-grade CS is a lot of showing them what they can do with coding or robotics. That sort of thing gets the students so excited.
Skill Struck: Other than Skill Struck lessons and playground, what resources or procedures have you used that have been helpful to integrate CS cross-curricularly?
Alden Thorpe: I try to incorporate it into what the teachers are already doing in the classroom. I visit all the different classrooms to provide support with CS. So, I try to use kind of what they are doing in class, but we also have robots. For more advanced, we’ll use some other programs or aspects here or there. There are so many things you can spend money on with CS and I’ve found keeping it simple is better. Gather a few tools (like Skill Struck and Robots) and then use what's in the classroom, use what they are doing already, and just bring it in.
Skill Struck: Can you give me an example of a challenge you've faced, or are there subjects that are tricky to add CS to? And how did you get past that?
Alden Thorpe: There are definitely some topics that are harder to integrate CS into. We tried to figure out how to use Robotics in Geography and we never came up with a great idea but, we chose not to force it, we moved on and tried something different. We are focusing on finding easy points of entry for it especially since teachers are not comfortable with it at all.
One really big idea that won over some of our teachers was when we added CS into narrative writing using robots. So we brought in the robots and they wrote a story about their robot and then they would program the robot to act out their story. The students were so into it. All they wanted to do was write. Writing their story and then watching it come to life was so empowering for them and something they don’t get to see often. It was so cool and meaningful to them.
I’ve found it is best to focus on easy points of entry rather than trying to force CS into places it's not really working. Of course, if you put enough time and thought into it you could figure out how to get into anything.
Participant Question: Do you find that using a base such as Skill Struck helps students transition from subject to subject?
Alden Thorpe: The biggest advantage to using something like Skill Struck is for the teachers. The familiarity and all the tools and things in there make it easier for the teachers to bring it in. Having all your CS resources in one place so teachers don’t have to go searching and finding things is helpful. It also is helpful in the year-to-year aspect. It has a progression starting with basic stuff and it builds you to the different and more difficult topics. The familiarity of having the one platform that scaffolds and builds up is the benefit aside from the teachers having the one package.
Kim Chapman (Skill Struck Customer Success Manager): If your school doesn’t have its own wonderful Alden, we do have lessons that you can pop into and explore that are cross-curricular for ELA, Science, and Math.
Skill Struck: How do students respond to this approach? Do they recognize that they are learning multiple disciplines across different subjects or are they just so excited and engaged that they jump straight in?
Alden Thorpe: This is one of my big selling points with teachers. The main point of my job is to get teachers' buy-in. So student engagement is big. Teachers come to me wanting to engage their students. If students aren’t engaged, CS and robots really excite them. These kids are wired to respond to technology. Sometimes it can be a cheap trick but take it or leave it.
Skill Struck: How do you plan these cross-curricular activities that you have? Are you bringing suggestions to teachers or are they coming to you telling you which topics they want to cover within language arts or history and then you help them come up with ideas?
Alden Thorpe: So what I have done is, I go to the teachers with the next idea or topic I need to cover and then I ask “What are you doing in class?” Then from there, we blend the two things together. Sometimes I’ll brainstorm with the teacher and other times I have an idea on how to bring them together not as an extra thing. We don’t add on another lesson, we just add to the lesson and make it better with CS. That is ideal and that is what I strive for. Sometimes we just do a lesson on its own. And I come in and co-teach with the teachers. But usually, we are adding to what subjects are already taught.
Skill Struck: How do you teach and assess student learning when teaching cross-curricular subjects?
Alden Thorpe: That is what we are working on. A lot of teachers have zero experience with CS and they are learning right along with the students. Because they are new it’s difficult for them to assess learning. So right now student learning is understood through project-based assessments. If they can complete the project then they understand the concepts. Skill Struck has assessments and we will start to use them for older students.
Skill Struck: What is the turning point for the teachers? How do you know when they are hooked?
Alden Thorpe: Not all teachers do, but the ones who do see the real-world application of it, and who have a higher comfort level with it. When a teacher offers to do the lesson on their own without my support that's how I know they have got it and they get how valuable CS learning is. When comfort level and understanding that it is important and applicable goes up. They are hooked.
Skill Struck: How do you Incorporate real-world examples into your projects?
Alden Thorpe: I’m always looking for new real-world CS integrations. I have a student whose family owns a ranch so we have looked into how agriculture uses CS. I get to know the interests of the students then I use videos at the beginning of my lessons showing them how it relates to their career interests. Engagement is huge and I find it starts by seeing how it is used in the real world.
Skill Struck: What advice would you give teachers who want to teach CS in a cross-curricular manner but don’t know how to get started?
- Familiarize yourself with the standards. Whatever standards you use, CSTA or State Standards.
- Don’t change your scope and sequence. Keep it and find places to slide it in, adjust or add in a little CS.
- Start where you are comfortable. Find simple adds and look at the resources that are out there.
- When you are getting into coding, jumping straight in with a lot of students can be overwhelming for the teacher and the students. My first lesson did not go great teaching the students how to log in. I learned to meet with students who already understand coding and train them to be a “coach” or a “leader” to help and support other students logging in or pointing out where the keys are on the keyboard. The technical side can be a lot so, go through it yourself, then train a small group of students, and then let them help you help the rest of the class to get set up.
Participant Question: How does CS integrate with Special Education?
Alden Thorpe: Technology can be inaccessible but it can also be SO accessible if you can find the right tools. And those students are some of the students that can benefit the most from it. If they can figure out how to leverage technology they can overcome some struggles. If you have a student that struggles with attention, or comprehension. Chatgpt can summarize complicated subjects and then spit out an explanation for a five-year-old.
Participant Question: Would you say Skill Struck is a tool to help students learn the curriculum?
Alden Thorpe: It’s a great way to make CS accessible to all the students. If you build it up and get students familiar with the platform, some students will grasp it and love it. Skill Struck is definitely a helpful tool. It doesn’t have things that distract or get students off-topic. That is the nice thing about Skill Struck’s contained platform. There is a large number of lessons that are unplugged for the younger grades that teachers really utilize.
Kim Chapman (Skill Struck Customer Success Manager): Providing teacher lesson plans is helpful for teachers who don't have the confidence yet and is useful so they have a guide to cover the curriculum and they feel more supported in that.
Learn more about Skill Struck’s courses and our cross-curricular offerings here.