5 tips for integrating coding into your science curriculum
As a middle school science teacher, I’m always looking for ways to make life science and biology more fun, engaging, and interesting for my students. Even though I don’t have a background in computer science, I’ve been able to integrate computer coding into our science curriculum. I learned about the CoderZ League through its related curriculum. I jumped right on board and now they can’t make me quit if they tried!
Prior to that, our district only offered coding at the high school level. We definitely wanted to bring that into our middle school and we’ve since introduced it at the elementary level as well. Today, we have 240 students in grades 6-8 enrolled in coding, and our fourth and fifth graders are also using it. Here’s how we introduced and grew our program:
1. Don’t rush in. We introduced coding as part of our science curriculum. Our normal class would be 50 minutes, but then a couple of times a week we’d extend that to 90 minutes. When we started doing the cyber robotics coding competitions, we made it “Code Friday,” so it wound up being a weekly event. When the children asked if they could also do the coding at home, we told them to go for it. We started with 20 minutes a week, but it’s since evolved into a more consistent schedule.
2. Share your plan with students. I introduced coding with honesty, and said, “Just so you know, I have no idea how to do this; I’m learning right along with you.” With that said, our mantra of “no one codes alone” came to be. The rule was that students had to help one another, code with one another, assess what’s going on, and figure out the best approach to solving problems. We showed them that what works for one group might not work for another group, but we also told them that if they get the code to work, they had to share it. It’s since become a huge, collaborative, organized chaos infused with energy and fun.
3. Work like a team. When we introduced coding to the school, we made it very clear that—as a middle school—we were one team. So, whether someone was in sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, we were one team working on our scores to see where we would rank compared to everyone else. Because of this, we approached competitions as a solid, cohesive group. My travel coders are the “Binary Bucs” because our school mascot is the buccaneer. Last year, we were the only all-girl team that competed, and we were pretty excited about that. I also love academic the sportsmanship. A lot of the girls and boys may come into this saying, “I’m not a coder. I’m not good at this. I don’t game.” But I just say, “You can do it. Just watch.” CoderZ minimized so many barriers and stigmas for us, and made everyone feel welcomed, involved, and part of the team.
4. Build character traits. Coding isn’t just about computer science; it also helps teach underlying themes like empathy, understanding, and acceptance. For example, one team member may not be strong in one coding chapter, but someone else will step in and say, “I’ve got your back. I’ll help you.” Now, they’ve just built that person up instead of speaking down to that student. How awesome is that? We need to be lifting more people up. That’s why we’re here.
5. Let students come up with new approaches. Last year, my students went through all 25 coding missions as a team. They looked at each task, picked someone to work on it, and then taught the lessons to those students who weren’t in their missions. I had nothing to do with that, but it was an amazing strategy that these youngsters came up with on their own. CoderZ actually called us and said, “Your students aren’t coding the missions in order.” I asked if we had to do the missions in order and they said no, but that they just couldn’t figure out why they were doing it that way. That’s the strategy my students chose, and it was pretty amazing; it worked well for them. That’s just one example of how we can encourage autonomy through computer coding.
Online, offline, or hybrid coding
If there’s one thing I’ve learned from teaching computer coding, it’s that it’s perfectly fine to have some controlled chaos and to let go of the reins a bit in the classroom. When we go into coding mode, I don’t care if students sit on the desk, under the desk, on the floor, on the couch, outside, or under the tree. It’s about finding your comfort zone and going with the flow.
Whether it happens online, offline, or in a hybrid teaching environment, coding is a game-changer. It’s also tons of fun. At the start of the year I tell my students to do the best they can and that regardless of the outcome, we’re all still going for milkshakes and French fries after the coding competition is over!
Stephanie Oster is Middle School Science Department Chair and Grade Seven Life Science/Marine Biology Teacher at The Benjamin School in North Palm Beach, Fla.