Leading the way
There’s a tangible energy in the classroom as kindergarteners crowd inside, each grabbing a tablet and pairing up at their desks. Sound effects from the tablets fill the air. Then the exclamations start.
“Mr. Hogan, I need help!”
“Mr. Hogan, I did it!”
Their teacher, Jim Hogan, moves from one student to the next at the rural Adrian R-III School in west-central Missouri. He shows them how to get unstuck and checks on everyone’s progress.
“Perfect! Good job,” he says after watching a student hit play on a sequence that makes characters move across the screen. “Now do another one.”
This is the students’ third day of learning to design and animate figures by dragging programming blocks into sequences on their tablets. It may look like a game, but it’s actually introducing them to the fundamentals of computer coding.
“Many students think computer science is too tough for them,” said Hogan. “By the time they’re middle schoolers or high schoolers, they have no interest simply because they think, ‘I can’t do it.’ To get them started at the kindergarten level lets them see, ‘I can.’”
At first glance, it’s remarkable to consider that these students are learning the fundamentals of computer coding at such a young age. But what’s happening here is far from unique. Lessons like this are increasingly common across the state. In fact, Missouri is one of the leading states embracing this innovative model.
It’s called Project Lead The Way. The program is centered on a curriculum that promotes computer science learning to students as young as these kindergartners and continues through the senior year of high school.
Missouri ranks first nationwide in the number of computer coding programs offered to high school students through Project Lead The Way. In the number of Project Lead The Way programs overall, the state ranks fourth, with 2,800 trained educators offering 742 programs in a variety of STEM areas for K-12.
To date, nearly 900,000 Missouri students have benefited from this effort.
Education leaders say the program has helped make computer science more accessible to both urban and rural school districts.
“Five years ago, there was this barrier that it was really an urban/suburban model and that it wasn’t workable for rural schools. In Missouri, we have turned the corner,” said David Hosick, senior affiliate director of Project Lead The Way at Missouri University of Science and Technology. “Most of our recent program registrations are actually not in the urban and suburban areas.”
As more rural schools like Adrian embrace Project Lead The Way and similar programs that bolster computer science education, there is a hope that these efforts will lead to greater economic prospects for students — and their communities as a whole.
“I’ve taught for over 40 years, and this is probably one of the best things I’ve seen come — particularly for the elementary level — in forever, to get them interested in the occupations that are going to be out there for them in the coming century,” Hogan said.
Abe Lewis, the principal at Adrian, said his school has a responsibility to teach these skills.
“If rural America isn’t trying to help produce people in those areas, then we’re not doing our students the right justice in being able to provide to them a quality education,” Lewis said.
Meeting the challenge
The afternoon high school computer science class at Adrian is small and informal. Here, students are gaining familiarity with a wide variety of coding languages used in the professional world.
Andrew Stewart, a senior, said he wants to go into cybersecurity.
“I’ve always been interested in computers. It’s the one thing I’m good at, the one thing I’m able to focus with. So it was an obvious path for me to take, and it’s been really fun,” Stewart said. “I like the hands-on, definitely, and learning how things work instead of [teachers] standing and lecturing forever.”
He likes collaborating with his peers to solve coding challenges.
“We made a little website together we’ve got running on the server over there,” said Stewart. “It is really awesome just being able to work together on projects and seeing each other figure things out that you can’t.”
This is exactly the model Project Lead The Way uses to teach students coding.
“Everything starts out with a problem, then you empower them with content, and then the content is used to loop back and answer the problem so the kids see the relevancy,” said Hosick. “They begin to see math and science a little bit of a different way than simply looking at it as ‘Here’s some information, and we’ve got a test on Friday.’”
The curriculum emphasizes creative approaches and the possibility for several right answers.
During this class period, Adrian high school instructor Colter Schacher is working with lowerclassmen to solve a coding problem.
“Don’t always think because you wrote something different than me that you’re wrong,” Schacher reminds them.
After a quick back-and-forth conversation reviewing the concept, Schacher’s students start typing and he stands back to let them try it out.
“I try to build my classroom around that collaboration, office-type feel instead of more like a traditional classroom setting where they have to raise their hand to ask a question,” said Schacher. “Because when they leave here, that’s what they’re going to be doing.”
While workforce needs are always rapidly changing, it’s likely these students will be highly valued once they are old enough to send out résumés. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that careers in computer science will grow 13 percent by 2026, adding over half a million new jobs. Right now, schools can’t produce enough graduates to meet this demand.
Project Lead The Way closely watches what today’s tech employers need and tailors its curriculum to teach students the right skills.
“What I love about Project Lead The Way is that it starts with the end user first and then works its way backwards,” said Hosick. “The end user is actually employers. So we asked employers, ‘What is it that you’re looking for in an effective employee?’ They talk about things like communication skills, effective teamwork, effective problem-solving.”
Teaching for the future
Megan Horton teaches Project Lead The Way computer science classes for middle and high school students in Adrian. She likes how the program requires a collaborative, less-structured teaching style.
“We as teachers need to be more of facilitators, allowing the students to explore their own learning,” Horton said. “So it’s almost like a productive struggle; they kind of struggle through the learning process, and I think they gain a better understanding by doing that.”
Getting certified to teach Project Lead The Way classes is no simple feat. Teacher trainings range from three-day boot camps to two-week programs.
“They’ve got homework. They’ve got assignments. They’ve got presentations they’re working on from 5:00 to whenever they go to bed,” said Lewis.
And training is just as hands-on for them as it will be for their students.
“If they’ve got to program a car in a computer science class, they’re going to be programming that car as part of their training, so that way they can help the kids be able to do it,” Lewis said.
But educators who undergo this rigorous preparation are seeing student successes that make the effort worth it.
Students who graduate from high school having participated in Project Lead The Way are nearly three times more likely to choose a science, math, engineering or technology major in college. They are also more likely to stay in college after their first year.
Schacher said a big part of getting young people interested in technology fields is simply breaking down misconceptions.
“You don’t have to be some supergenius to understand computers,” said Schacher. “It’s the person that’s willing to look at it from a logical perspective and take the time to solve that problem.”