You Can Do It Too

Are you looking for simple ways to introduce students to computer science? As a teacher, you can use Google’s free program (designed for grades 4 – 8) called CS First. It’s an easy way to engage your students with coding in just one hour (or, hey, go way beyond an hour with a 10-hour curriculum or even a coding club). The good news is that you don’t need to be a computer scientist to pull it off. In brief, CS First is a free web-based curriculum that exposes students to computer science by encouraging club members to tell a unique story each day using Scratch–an easy-to-learn, block-programming platform. Let’s check it out! Here’s an overview:

Students, Teachers, and Admins Talk

Video source CS First: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.

Now check out this post on ISTE: Google CS First ignites interest in computer science . You’ll have a great understanding of CS First after you read it!

Finally, here are some CS First highlights from its website:

  • Anyone can teach CS First
  • CS First provides everything you need
  • Appeal to students through theme-based projects (storytelling, art, game design, fashion, music and sound, sports)

The CS First activity outline:

  • Take a brief survey then watch a few videos that introduce you to CS First and Scratch, the programming platform.
  • Learn about computer science
  • choose a character
  • tell a story
  • use add-ons
  • reflect
  • wrap-up your story by sharing and showing your project

CS First Sample Activities:

My Story

CS First works great as an afterschool club, and an afternoon coding club is a great way to add STEM enrichment to students’ lives. Yet what about those kids who can’t attend after-school activities? With any luck, they’ll have a school that supports this type of learning during the school day. But before that becomes commonplace, districts, admins, teachers, and even parents need to understand why it is important to take time for these activities. Even once the understanding is there, the fear of how to integrate computer science into classrooms must be overcome. But its not really that difficult as I can attest to from personal experience.

My own story begins nearly thirty years ago. Ever since AOL offered a platform for it in the mid 1990s, I dabbled in website creation. My first website showcased family photos. The enjoyment grew as technology advanced, and I considered making websites my art and my hobby. Eventually, I created some serious sites for local businesses and non-profits in the early 2000s, but as websites became more complex and life took me in new directions, I stopped being a webmaster. Yet I never lost interest in all things Internet.

In 2010, I completed a post-baccalaureate program through the University of Alaska Fairbanks in elementary education and became a classroom teacher in 2011. I loved “technology” and always looked for ways to bring it into my second grade classroom. Genius Hour and Creativity Lab offered my students opportunities to explore electricity with Snap Circuits, and basic coding principles with Push-Button Programmable Robots. A book on paper airplanes let students build and test different models as they learned about aerodynamics and design. A few sets of K’Nex created future engineers as my 7- and 8-year-old students built bridges. Students also painted, created skits, learned to sew, or researched a favorite topic. Parents volunteered on Fridays during my labs and admired students’ abilities to think deeply and creatively at such a young age. I valued giving them these opportunities, and I learned right alongside all my students.

Seward Code Club began in 2013. Cofounders: Leigh Ray, Valarie Kingsland, & Amy Hankins

Knowing my interest in technology led Amy Hankins, a mother of a student in my school, to ask me to help her start a FIRST Lego League Robotics summer program using WeDo and Mindstorms technology. I had never done anything with Lego Robotics but wanted to give it a try. Our club was a hit! We had to limit the numbers of students we could have at a time and quickly filled up a waiting list in our small town of Seward, Alaska (pop. 3,000). We ran that for a couple years and then branched out to form the Seward Code Club. The club offered kids up to age 18 guidance in programming using, Scratch, Lego Robotics, and more. Many kids got their STEM start in our club.

Seward Code Club’s original mission statement and more.

The next joint endeavor Amy and I undertook was bringing Lego Robotics to our elementary school! Luckily, students and teachers were familiar with coding because I had organized (forced upon the teachers!) the Hour of Code in its inaugural year (2013), which went very well based upon teacher and student comments afterward. That positive experience opened the door for the in-school robotics labs. We set up a schedule to allow teachers to sign up for WeDo Lego Robotics during the school day. Typically, a teacher would schedule 1.5 hours of time and enlist parent volunteers to help troubleshoot during the class.

With a robotics curriculum ongoing throughout the year and the annual Hour of Code, our little school was quite a leader in STEM education! I furthered STEM in our school when I won $10,000 worth of technology equipment for our school from We bought a 3D printer, which I taught myself how to use before teaching students and other teachers. We bought two classroom sets of Chromebooks for our third graders. Teachers got web cameras and learned to connect with classrooms around the world. Some teachers got document cameras. That ten grand went a long way in helping our school, and I’m thankful for how it helped our students and our teachers get a STEM mindset.

That’s me holding the check with our principal, David Kingsland. The guy with the mic is our superintendent, Mr. Sean Dusek, and the lady in the back is Lynn Hohl from our school board.

For every year I taught at Seward Elementary School, our whole school participated in the Hour of Code. But all good stories must come to an end. I moved to Tennessee in 2017 and can only hope that parents and teachers kept the momentum going in Seward in one way or another. Sadly, all that’s left of the Seward Code Club now is a Symbaloo with some broken links. <<sad face>> But maybe they still teach the WeDo Lego Robotics curriculum in the school? (Note to self: Email former colleagues and find out!) No matter where they are with STEM education at Seward Elementary today, I am proud of how we made a difference in so many children’s lives for all the years I taught there (2011-2017).

Super important point!

So by now you’re thinking that you are not a code rockstar like me who wins money for school, runs clubs, does programming…wait! Who said I knew anything about programming or coding? I truly was no rockstar. I was just a teacher who felt strongly that kids needed hands-on dabbling with 21st century tools. The truth is that I knew some HTML at the start of my school initiatives, but that was it. Let me put it this way. When it all began, when we did the Hour of Code, when I began teaching Lego Robotics, when I co-founded the Seward Code Club, I knew absolutely nothing about anything else other than very basic HTML. That’s not a lot. But I moved forward despite my lack of knowledge because I had been sold on the importance of STEM and coding in our schools just through my awareness of the topic and my personal interest in technology. Moreover, I believed it was necessary to start with the youngest children to help them develop a permanent, pro-math, pro-science, pro-technology, pro-engineering mindset. So I wrangled our Kindergarten teachers into participating in the Hour of Code with their kiddos. And guess what? Afterward, the teachers thanked me. Not just the Kindergarten teachers — but all the teachers. They said their kiddos learned so much and even surprised them when some of the “low learners” performed impressively and got excited about learning!

It’s Important

Let me not forget to emphasize that this playfulness with technology at Seward Elementary School and the story I told you are to illustrate this important maxim: STEM education should not be optional in today’s schools. It should be a permanent, embedded way of educating today’s youth for tomorrow’s jobs. Google it. Study infographics. Ask kids. Ask business leaders in your local community. If you’re already sold, then dive in no matter what your role. Educators, parents and relatives, and business leaders all have important roles in motivating students, teachers, school boards, politicians, and philanthropists to support STEM education for all.

STEM for the Ages infographic

What’s your story? Readers would love to hear about your path as an educator, student, business person! Please leave your comments. Thanks!

BUZZ: Blended Learning & Integrated STEM

So many buzz words exist in education today. Just Google the phrase “educational buzz words” for a sampling! Or check out this critical thinkers guide to educational fads (preview only). Obviously some stand the test of time and graduate from fad designation to become truly worthy of educators’ attention. Two that hold the gold standard for the future are blended learning and integrated STEM. In fact, if used in tandem, no child would be left behind, so to speak!

But blended learning is not the same as integrated STEM, and a good understanding about the differences between both helps teachers chart a path toward rich and engaging 21st century pedagogy. As you’ll see, these two should be working together in practice because of their similarities and novel approach toward education, but both are big changes in how we traditionally do school in the United States and require a sharp learning curve during implementation.

Read on, dear teacher. It does not have to be overwhelming even though there is a learning curve. And it can work with your school’s required pacing guide and standards. It can also work with you going solo or working with colleagues. Going solo is easiest if you run an elementary classroom and teach all subjects to your kiddos. If you are a single-subject teacher, then you need to get your colleagues on board. In my practice as a second and sixth grade teacher, I’ve experienced it both ways. First, I became a blended learning classroom in second grade and later began sprinkling in integrated STEM units. When I became an ELA teacher for sixth graders, I worked with my team teachers who taught math, science, and social studies to pull off integrated STEM, but blended learning happened in my classroom regardless.

Okay so to begin your journey, this should help provide a basic understanding of blended learning, which by definition is as follows:

Blended learning is a formal education program in which a student learns:


at least in part through online learning, with some element of student control over time, place, path, and/or pace;

at least in part in a supervised brick-and-mortar location away from home;

and the modalities along each student’s learning path within a course or subject are connected to provide an integrated learning experience.

Source: Christensen Institute

Seven models represent different ways to blend and are best described at the Blended Learning Universe. This graphic provides the framework:


Now that you have that background information, here is a little inspiration for blending. This is a video of my 2nd graders at Seward Elementary School (Alaska).

What then, is integrated STEM and how does it contrast with blended learning? Moore et al. (2014) defined integrated STEM education as “an effort to combine some or all of the four disciplines of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics into one class, unit, or lesson that is based on connections between the subjects and real-world problems” (p. 38). Integrated STEM curriculum models can contain STEM content learning objectives primarily focused on one subject, but contexts can come from other STEM subjects (Moore et al.). Therefore, it is clear that by “blending” science, technology, engineering, and/or mathematics, we are not talking about a blended learning model of teaching.

[Learn more details about integrated STEM by clicking the links in the right sidebar.]

Blended Learning and integrated STEM are entirely different yet the two exist to complement each other beautifully. For example, blended learning isn’t just about online learning, as some think, but more about making space for real-world relationships and authentic learning. This is also the aim of integrated STEM, which uses a project- or problem-based learning approach that asks students to work together to create a solution and solve problems in the real world.

Buzz: Design Thinking – Check it Out!

The Design Thinking process, from Stanford University, involves five steps: empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test. In classrooms, students can learn to solve problems, invent, and create solutions by using the same process as the world’s inventors and thinkers. This sounds familiar to integrated STEM, doesn’t it?


To help you imagine the classroom that uses both blended and integrated STEM, picture students going from station to station in your classroom. Each station focuses on a different aspect of the problem or project at hand. If you teach all subjects, the stations are arranged to include elements from all subject areas. For example, at one station students solve mathematical problems related to the project, while at another station students test prototypes that they built at yet another station. Still, another station students reflect in writing on what is and isn’t working in a class journals–adding on to what previous students said. A social studies station could have students analyze if their solution is adaptable to different cultural approaches, offers alternative explanations and solutions, and is feasible given regional differences. Using stations as a way to organize the learning promotes inclusion of experts from local businesses. Imagine having an engineer present at the design station once a week and a journalist regularly overseeing the technical writing that accompanies the project.

That brings me to volunteers from local businesses, often dubbed “corporate citizenship.” At first thought, are you doubting the feasibility of this? In fact, statistics show that many companies in the United States encourage mentoring and volunteering programs to pave the way for a larger workforce down the road. The following infographic by Bayer and the 4-H sum up many valid points about STEM education and the future:

Source: (I have no affiliation with either Bayer or National 4-H Council.)

Since corporate volunteerism really is a digression from this blog post topic (yet an extremely important topic), please take time by initiating a Google search using keywords such as corporate volunteerism. Here’s a start:

Image Licensed for Reuse

So what do you do to get started in your classroom with blended learning and/or integrated STEM? First, start a conversation with your colleagues, administrators, and IT directors at district office. See what they’re thinking, planning, and maybe already doing about it. Then give it a try – one step at a time. For example, you might choose to do a 3-day PBL unit, or take a week and structure your lessons in a station rotation model. Finally, continue to learn what you can about both topics by visiting these websites:

Enjoy your journey toward empowering STEM learning!


Moore, T., Stohlmann, M., Wang, H., Tank, K., Glancy, A., & Roehrig, G. (2014). Implementation and integration of engineering in K-12 STEM education. In S. Purzer, J. Strobel, & M. Cardella (Eds.), Engineering in Pre-College Settings: Synthesizing Research, Policy, and Practices (pp. 35–60). West Lafayette: Purdue University Press.Google Scholar

A.J. Juliani

If you’ve not heard of A.J. Juliani, and you are interested in better teaching, head over to his site to learn more and to sign up for his emails.

Heck – jump right in and sign up for his seminar Monday night, which I’ll be reviewing here after the fact.

Here’s his email to me (listserv):

From:  <aj @>
Date: Sunday, February 24, 2019 at 3:29 PM
Subject: 5-Step Process for Creating Authentic PBL That Covers Standards and Curriculum

Wow, we’ve got over 700 people registered for the free workshop tomorrow night. It is all about taking any unit and turning it into a PBL experience that covers standards and your curriculum. I’m going to show you the 5-step process to do just that!

The Free Online Workshop is happening this Monday night at 9pm EST. You can sign-up to be a part of the training right here!

Sign-Up For My Free Workshop: How To Turn Any Unit into A Project-Based Learning Experience

Can’t wait to share this process with you and see how you can take PBL to the next level of authentic learning!