7 Ways Hands-On Computer-Science Learning Prepares Students for the Future

The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 13% growth in computer and IT occupations between 2020 and 2030. Yet many students — especially those in underrepresented groups — are not given the opportunity to learn computer science. Now is the time for school districts to better prepare all students for a technology-driven future where computer science skills and knowledge are in demand across every industry.

As the technology we use every day evolves, the career opportunities students will have in the future might well depend on the computer science skills they develop in the present.  However, CS skills alone will not fully prepare our youth.  We must provide all students the ability to apply these skills in relevant and engaging lessons that build not only a solid foundation in computer science but also build the skills and competencies they need to successfully move forward to meet their future success goals.

Using project-based learning that provides students with hands-on experiences that build the skills they need to tackle upcoming challenges.  Performance tasks that integrate computer science skills are an authentic way to prepare our students for their future. 


Here are 7 ways hands-on computer science learning prepares our students for their future:

1. Authentic application of computer science skills

The field of computer science is vast and ever-changing. In fact, it is one of the fastest-growing career fields and will continue to grow as our technology advances.  Individuals on computer science career paths are in one of the highest paying fields that currently exists.  However, computer science is one of the most challenging curriculums to integrate into the curriculum.  It is not a curriculum that can just be instructor-led, but instead, students must be given opportunities to jump into authentic tasks that provide a context for these skills.  

Computer science performance tasks provide the hands-on experiences students need to explore this field.  While younger students may build simple algorithms to tackle real-life challenges, older students might develop more sophisticated programs that demonstrate their competencies.


2. Exploration of Future Career Opportunities

Consider the multitude of careers that exist today that were beyond our vision a decade ago.  Explore online job sites to see firsthand the realm of job opportunities that require a knowledge of computer science.  

It is not enough for our students to simply learn the basics of coding.  With evolving technology, skills and competencies must also evolve.  Computer science performance tasks enable students to explore a variety of key skills such as the integration of artificial intelligence systems and automated networks.  Other tasks allow students to build a basic understanding of data storage and retrieval systems, as well as potential threats to the security of our devices. Providing hands-on explorations with authentic tasks provides students with a pathway to high-tech careers. 


3. Development of Critical Thinking Skills 

Critical thinking is an essential skill in every career field, including that of computer science. Critical thinking is the ability to identify and analyze facts to better understand and solve a  problem.  Understanding that there may be multiple solutions to any given problem a critical thinker will make informed decisions by considering different possibilities, and analyzing the outcomes.  

When tackling performance tasks, students develop critical thinking skills as they work to understand the purpose of the task, research supporting information, develop possible solutions and evaluate and reflect on their success.  Project-based performance tasks provide students with a multitude of opportunities to develop critical thinking skills and become innovative thinkers. 


4. Computational Thinking in Action

Computer science is also an integral component of building computational thinking in our students.  Computational thinking is the ability to decompose complex problems into smaller pieces, analyze information and patterns, and design and evaluate algorithms or solutions. Simply put, it is a compilation of problem-solving skills that allow students to tackle authentic, real-life problems.

The integration of computer science goes beyond just teaching computer skills.  Through the hands-on tasks, students dissect problems and look for possible solutions.  In the elementary grades, this might consist of creating and sharing the process taken to reach a solution.  In secondary classrooms, students may have to develop flowcharts or pseudocode that will later support the creation of programs or software that addresses the problem.  In each performance task, computational thinking is vital to decomposing a problem and designing the steps that lead to a solution.


5. Collaboration and Teamwork

There are very few careers that are performed in isolation. Whether one is working with a team or providing services to clients, most careers require interpersonal relationships.  The ability to work and collaborate with others is a vital skill in nearly every career path, including computer science.

Performance tasks inherently encourage collaborative problem solving, sparking creativity, communication and success.  As students work together to understand and research a problem, they build upon the strengths and skills of team members.  Student engagement increases as they are able to share responsibilities and challenges with others. 


6. Design Thinking in Process 

Hands-on performance tasks encourage students to work through a design thinking process.  Students identify the problems and imagine possible solutions.  Then they design one plausible solution, then evaluate and reflect on the effectiveness of the solution.  By instituting this process, students are able to solve problems, develop critical thinking skills, and create new and innovative solutions.  

This design process is applicable to many challenges students will have in future careers.  The ability to not only identify and work through problems, but to evaluate and reflect on obstacles and success, is a vital skill for future careers in computer science. 


7. Equity and Diversity

While computer science offers many future career options, not all students are exposed to the skills and competencies they need to succeed.   Less than half of K-12 schools nationwide implement meaningful computer science courses (Google & Gallup, 2016).  When looking at the number of students enrolled in computer science courses, there is a disparity between caucasian and Asian males and minority students, (females, Black, African-American, Hispanic or Latino).  The absence of implicit computer science instruction broadens this equity gap.

In order to close this gap, computer science skills need to be introduced and developed at an early age.  Using hands-on performance tasks is one way to help close this gap. Tasks in primary grades provide opportunities for students to build a foundation on which to build.  As students grow, advanced skills and competencies are introduced and explored.  The performance tasks provide authentic opportunities to the skills needed to enter into the future career paths of our students.

Project-based performance tasks are one way to provide hands-on learning to all students, developing critical skill sets.  Providing opportunities for students to practice critical thinking and problem-solving skills in addition to the fundamentals of computer science will ensure that students are ready for the future they envision.

About the Author:

Kellie Weisenbeck is a retired educator who spent 30+ years in the elementary classroom. As an early advocate of integrating technology into the classroom in order to increase student engagement, she also worked in her system as an instructional technology coach. She currently works as a consultant to support educators and districts to implement and address technology standards into the curriculum. Kellie has also been a driving force in the new computer science curriculum introduced by Defined Learning.



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