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Teach Coding and Computational Thinking to Elementary Students

By Julie Randles
December 7, 2020
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Students love it when teachers bring cool and creative things to the classroom, but unless those things connect to content and curriculum, the benefits can be limited.

And, as Patricia Brown, technology specialist at Old Bonhomme Elementary in St. Louis, Missouri, explains, lessons that are "all show and no go" might raise eyebrows with administrators.

That’s why Brown, also a facilitator, uses her role to help K-6 teachers bring coding, computational thinking and computer science (CS) lessons that are grounded in grade-level curriculum to students. And she’s doing it in a number of content areas, including math, science and social studies, with both unplugged and device-enabled lessons.

The benefits? “You create these engaged and curious playful learners that become creators and producers. Coincidentally, we’re helping them prepare to be employed in our economy,” Brown says. “They will be empowered to be informed citizens and inventors.”

Brown admits that at first she thought coding was just about solving puzzles or participating in events like Hour of Code. “It’s not. It’s about tapping into computational thinking, collaborating and learning to be persistent in problem solving instead of just robots of knowledge.”

Educators can tap into Brown’s philosophy and bring coding and CS to their classrooms with a few easy, curriculum-based lessons.

Explaining algorithms 

Unplugged lessons that rely on working collaboratively to solve problems or are powered by physical movement are a great way to introduce CS concepts and tackle math curriculum like algorithms. In one lesson, Brown explains to students that an algorithm is just a list of steps to complete a task. She then talks about how getting ready to come to school every day is an algorithm – a recipe for what you need to complete and in what order. Students then collaborate to create a get-ready-for-school algorithm.

“This is an example of a CS term and strategy that can be applied to any content area and to real life,” Brown explains.

Coding states of matter 

Bringing basic coding to science curriculum on a topic like the states of matter is made easy with a resource like Ozobot. These tiny robots are sensitive to color, so when students draw lines, say on a map, the robot will do different tricks depending on the pattern and colors of the lines. Brown has used the bots to teach second graders about the states of matter – liquid, solid and gas.

She made up a story about the Ozobot looking for his long-lost brother in different parts of the world where there were different states of matter. Students must determine what state of matter they might encounter, for example, in Alaska and how the robot would move in that state. (Hint: ice makes for slow movement). What about in hot Bermuda? (Bot speeds increase). Students use Ozobot color-code markers and click-type coding on the robot itself to guide the robot through various states of matter at the proper speed.  

Schooling on sound

For a third grade science unit on sound, Brown has students create instruments using Scratch and Makey Makey. For example, to create a piano, students would use Scratch to code sounds or notes using arrow keys and the space bar. By attaching Makey Makey alligator clips to an everyday object, students can make sounds resonate from, say, a glass of water or a banana by having the Makey Makey “slots” represent a command from the keyboard.


Watch the video below to find out how Keri Gritt, technology coordinator at St. Stephen's School in Virginia, teaches 4- and 5-year-olds to code: 

Discover fun ways to incorporate computational thinking into all subject areas to increase student engagement online or off by signing up for the ISTE U Course "Computational Thinking for Every Educator."

ISTE U - Computational Thinking edtech PD


Julie Phillips Randles is a freelance writer and editor with 30 years of experience writing about education policy, leadership, curriculum and edtechThis is an updated version of a post that first published on January 27, 2017.