Engaging Students Through Computational Thinking

By Allison DeGraaf

In today’s technology-driven world, teachers have a new role in their student’s growth. Teaching used to be focused on learning and retaining information, but now we are changing how we teach so students can take what they’ve learned and apply it in school, work and beyond.

This is where the thought process of computational thinking comes into play. Computational thinking is a higher-level process whereby students can decipher problems and form innovative solutions. At the Janesville School District, our teachers have found immense success inspiring learning and retention through computational thinking. This valuable skill provides a unique method of problem-solving which is integral to many jobs of the future. By 2026, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that were will be 1.5 million computing jobs but just 400,000 computer science students with the skills to apply for those jobs.

With this in mind, we offer an outside-of-school program for students to learn about topics such as computer science, environmental science and engineering. Through a carefully selected group of learning activities, teachers in our district aim to boost excitement for computational thinking outside of school, increase engagement and change the future of curriculum for the school year.

Our program is available for any type of student who would benefit from extra learning opportunities – this ranges from students who may be struggling, to students who excel and would like an extra challenge. The relaxed atmosphere of being outside of the classroom offers our students a unique opportunity to learn and for teachers to dive deeper into subjects without pressure.

One of the resources we like to share with our students is Ignite My Future in School, a free website that we are using as a resource in our STEM curriculum to help students gain a deeper understanding of problem-solving and computational thinking. Here is a sampling of the activities that we encourage our students and their families to try outside of the classroom:

  • Hydro-Garden: In this activity, students and their families plan their own indoor garden. In the process, students learn how designers and civic planners use Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software such as TinkerCAD – which is available to download free of charge – to create their designs. Using CAD software allows students to experiment, find and fix errors, and simulate real-life events using mathematics without having to buy expensive materials.
  • Score!: Whether your student likes to play sports or sports video games or enjoys watching and learning about sports, there are lots of career opportunities in the sports industry that involve analyzing data. In this activity, students collect data about their favorite sports team and use computational models to explore the relationships between various statistics to identify trends and causes and even predict the future.
  • Secret Code for Mazes: We encourage students to work together with friends or family to solve a maze using binary code. Since most modern computers use binary code for instructions and data, students will learn how to analyze a maze the way a computer might and then communicate the solution to the maze using a binary sequence.

These projects are helpful because they relate real-world activities to computational thinking methods. We’ve found that a mix of home and school activities provides a well-rounded experience for students who would like to grow their skills.

For older students, we recommend they explore resources such as TinkerCAD and Codecademy, interactive resources, outside of the classroom. When there is an immersive approach to skills like coding and computational thinking, it becomes easier to retain the information and apply it outside of school. Younger students should try out game-based Scratch and Hopscotch, two apps that teach coding in a familiar way.

Our district has incorporated computational thinking across curriculum to really boost the learning opportunities that our students have access to. We’ve learned that project-based learning really jives with our student population, so we encourage teachers to get creative with lesson plans.

For more, see:

Allison DeGraaf is the Director of Learning and Innovation for the Janesville School District in Wisconsin.

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