STEM at School
Project-Based Computer Science Class Increases Student Engagement and Enrollment in Barnstable
Inside the Project Lead the Way (PLTW) Computer Science classroom at Barnstable High School, students huddle over laptops and small wheeled robots which rest on the tables. A student unplugs the robot from the computer and heads over to a green maze laid out on the floor by the entrance to the classroom.
The robot wheels its way around the maze as the student watches. The robot takes two correct turns, following the maze’s pattern, but misses its third turn and instead continues to drive. The student picks up the robot and returns to the laptop, explaining what happened to someone nearby.
The teacher, Sharon Nelson, explains that some students are programming the robot to complete the maze. Those who have completed the maze have begun to program the robots to recognize specific colors and change their direction based on what they see. Nelson walks around the room checking in with students individually, prompting them when they get stuck or directing them to another student who may be able to help them troubleshoot.
“People help each other in the class. People interact with each other.”
The PLTW Computer Science is a project-based curriculum with real world connections. Students work at their own pace to complete the projects such as app development, game creation, and programming driving robots. The curriculum seeks to empower students to not only develop essential skills, such as problem solving, creative and critical thinking skills, but also to help build skills such as collaboration and perseverance.
Students in the class shared an appreciation for the skills developed in the class, as well as the overall cooperative atmosphere of the classroom. “This class is very interesting and helps you with computer skills and critical thinking skills,” one student in the class explained. “People help each other in the class. People interact with each other.”
The PLTW Computer Science Essentials course at Barnstable is open to students in grades 8-11. The project-based curriculum helps students develop computer science skills and collaboration skills through real world examples.
Students also described the class as fun and engaging. “I like coding the robots and I like when we made the games,” a student shared. Another student chimed in: “This class is more engaging than other classes. You actually get to do stuff….Here you get to actually test stuff and it is fun.”
Students also appreciated the self-paced nature of the course. “You get to work at your own pace,” a student shared when asked about their favorite aspect of the course. “You don’t feel rushed. And you get to work with robots.”
In the summer of 2018, Sharon Nelson completed a two-week training with Project Lead the Way to be able to teach the curriculum. Nelson, a math teacher, had limited experience in computer science before the training. As part of her training, Nelson went through the curriculum herself with other teachers.
“You have to have everyone working at different paces through the curriculum and you have to be okay with not lecturing."
Nelson described feeling “intimidated” when starting the training, but quickly found that the teachers leading the program were there to support her. She also has benefited from the ongoing support offered by Project Lead the Way throughout the school year, including community groups and online forums where she can ask questions or troubleshoot with other teachers.
Nelson warned that teaching a project-based class is different from a traditional class; she said, “You have to have everyone working at different paces through the curriculum and you have to be okay with not lecturing. At times it can feel like chaos. But the students are engaged and making progress.”
At Barnstable High School, Project Lead the Way Computer Science serves as an introduction to computer science course. After completing the course, students can move on to take other computer science courses, such as Cybersecurity or AP Computer Science.
Students program a wheeled VEX robot using Scratch code blocks. In the second half of the course, students will transition from using Scratch to coding with python.
According to Tina Crook, Math Curriculum Coordinator for Grades 6-12 in Barnstable, the enrollment in computer science courses at Barnstable High School has “doubled” over three years, providing further evidence for the fact that students are enjoying the course and finding it valuable.
“Students are selecting courses, like computer science,” Crook said, “knowing that these courses will offer them hands-on learning and will incorporate opportunities to design solutions to real world problems.“
Enrollment in computer science courses at Barnstable High School has “doubled” over three years, providing further evidence for the fact that students are enjoying the course and finding it valuable.
As for what is next for Computer Science Pathway at Barnstable High School, Crook reports that Barnstable is looking to “expand our internship opportunities for our seniors and build community partnerships.”
Since Nelson has completed the training, PLTW professional development has shifted mostly online. Teachers can complete the training over two weeks virtually in the summer and registration is open now.
If any teachers or administrators in the Cape Cod Region are interested in learning more about Project Lead the Way Computer Science and Sharon Nelson’s experience teaching the course, feel free to reach out to Sharon Nelson at email@example.com.