Smart Review: Blackbird Education Platform

Boy engaging in STEM

In the past few years, there has been a noticeable increase in programs related to STEM in education. The push toward bringing more opportunities to students is in preparation for the required skills of the future. According to the World Economic Forum, there is an increasing demand for STEM-related skills for the future, as it has been reported that the United States will need to fill 3.5 million STEM jobs by 2025.  In our schools, we need to provide more opportunities for all students to explore STEM topics, however, there are gaps in the types and levels of the curriculum offered.  Accessibility to programs may be a barrier and for some educators, knowing where to begin might also be an issue, as there are many options available. Blackbird is working to address these gaps and concerns.

I recently had the opportunity to learn more about the new middle school coding program available through Blackbird, the creators of the world’s first educational version of JavaScript. Mike Lynch, a former high school science teacher, now Director of Education for Blackbird, gave me a demo of the platform which recently launched and first middle school-focused code education platform. The Blackbird team ran trials of their program in several middle schools and coding academies in the United States, including in Portland, The Girls’ Place Chicago, and Florida.

The platform was built to address the “middle school gap” and provide students with the opportunity to learn JavaScript, which is one of the most commonly used programming languages. The “middle school gap” refers to the span of time between when students learn to code at the elementary level using block-based programs like Scratch and do not have many options until reaching high school, where they may enroll in more advanced computer science courses, if available.

What makes Blackbird different?

For many educators, there may be hesitation when it comes to coding programs because of a lack of experience or knowledge. In my own experience, I kept to coding programs that I knew and understood enough so that I could provide support for my students. However, I realized that I needed to open more opportunities for them to pass my own knowledge, or I was greatly limiting their potential. What makes Blackbird stand out is that all teachers can use the platform without any prerequisites when it comes to coding. Parents can also support students through this program. Blackbird made this program with teachers in mind, in particular, those who don’t have a background in technology and for use with all grade levels and content areas. They offer professional development online and many resources to support teachers as they roll this out in their classrooms.

Blackbird is an educational version of Javascript that enables middle school students to develop coding skills in a robust and scaffolded platform that is accessible for learning virtually or in person. Lynch said that “Students are focused on how computer programs work and how they can write their own programs.” With the scaffolds in place, all students can build skills and become more confident and interested in STEM fields.

The structure and scaffolded support of the platform makes it so all students and teachers can build skills at their own pace. It allows for differentiation and enrichment through the workshops and built-in supports available for students and teachers. The curriculum was made with a continuum in mind. Students work through modes of computer programming, then move on to completing guided projects, and then ultimately students have opportunities for more creative expression in a sandbox type of learning environment. It is initially structured and scaffolded and then the supports are removed as students build their skills.

There are ten stages with lessons for each stage. It is standards aligned with the Common Core State Standards for Math and English, Next Generation Science Standards  (NGSS), and Computer Science Teachers Association Computer Science standards. Blackbird integrates with Clever and Google through SSO. Teachers have a dashboard where they can track student progress including lessons completed, time spent on each, review errors and even send direct messages to students in response to their questions. The data is easily accessible to teachers, and the way the platform is designed, also leads to increased student engagement in learning. Teachers can give more meaningful, personalized feedback that will help to improve student achievement as well as build their confidence in learning to code.

Students begin by programming a simple game, building from the ground up and progressing with each lesson. Students can work at their own pace and as they progress, there are supports in place for them such as “Show Me” which highlights in red any errors in the code they are writing on their own. They can choose “Steps” to verify the steps in the program and see how the code works. Through the Teacher dashboard,  teachers can see each student’s progress, any hands raised for questions and are able to support students as they work through each stage and lesson.

Blackbird Education Platform:

  • Students learn JavaScript through game and animation creation
  • Can be implemented by educators and parents – without any level of technical expertise required
  • Integrated Learning Management System (LMS)
  • Promotes student-driven learning
  • Provides resources for educators including detailed student reports, class overviews, solutions page with answer keys
  • Offers materials to get started including videos, checklists, course outlines, syllabus, PD resources

It was easy to see how students and teachers would quickly be able to get started with Blackbird as it is designed for self-paced learning whether in person or remotely. Educators and parents can create an account that offers several lessons for free as well as additional advanced levels for a premium price.

Because many jobs will rely on coding in the future, it is important that we provide students with opportunities to explore the possibilities and determine their interests in these areas. We must offer options that will lead to more authentic and meaningful experiences that promote the development of essential skills for the future. With the Blackbird platform, we now have the opportunity to provide more engaging and student-driven, independent, hands-on learning.

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Rachelle Dené Poth

Rachelle Dené Poth is a Foreign Language and STEAM Teacher at Riverview Junior/Senior High in Oakmont, PA.

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