We are joined by Tamieka Grizzle from Cobb County Schools and Erin Rehberg from Thomas County Schools to chat about engaging kids in computer science at the elementary level.

episode 102

It's a popular saying that as educators, you are preparing your students for jobs that don't yet exist. And since many of those jobs will be in the technology sector, it's become so important to introduce students to computer science at an early age. 

In this episode of Classroom Conversations, we are joined by teachers Tamieka Grizzle from Cobb County Schools and Erin Rehberg from Thomas County Schools to chat about engaging kids in computer science at the elementary level.


Ashley Mengwasser: Welcome to Classroom Conversations, the platform for Georgia's teachers. This podcast is a place for Georgia educators to share and to learn. I'm Ashley Mengwasser, your host just glad to be here. We have some important people to thank for this content. Classroom Conversations is presented by the Georgia Department of Education in partnership with Georgia Public Broadcasting. You know what's fundamental to classroom learning in the digital age pivotal to the production of this podcast, even? Computer science.

Admittedly, not my wheelhouse. Good thing we have some technical experts, techperts standing by. At GPB Studios today are two women in technology here to take us through computer science education in the elementary classroom, bit by bit. Would you like that? We welcome Erin Rehberg, Digital Learning and Media Services Director for Thomas County schools and Tamieka Grizzle, STEM and Innovation Professional Learning Specialist at Mableton Elementary. Hello ladies?

Erin Rehberg: Hello.

Tamieka Grizzle: Good afternoon.

Ashley Mengwasser: Your titles are fierce. Those are fantastic. How are you feeling today, Tamieka?

Tamieka Grizzle: I'm feeling great.

Ashley Mengwasser: Okay. She's a jazz. What about you Erin?

Erin Rehberg: Excited to be here and have this important conversation.

Ashley Mengwasser: And it is important. Well, you're both rock stars in computer science education and like rock stars you're about to amass a whole lot of fans, so get ready for that. Erin, you drove the farthest, so let's start with you I don't have a prize or anything, but I know Georgia has 159 counties second only to Texas, fun fact. And Thomas county is located in Southwest Georgia near the state line. What's your school district like?

Erin Rehberg: We have about 5,800 students in five schools. We are in a rural setting. We are fairly close to Tallahassee, but still very rural, lots of agriculture and pine trees and our school district though we do feel like we are very innovative. We try to be on the cutting edge and giving our students the same opportunities as students in any other part of state.

Ashley Mengwasser: Innovation across the state. Tamieka, you're in the Atlanta Metro area in Mableton Elementary and that's in Cobb County so you're basically local.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: What's unique about your school?

Tamieka Grizzle: I love my school. We are a Title I school in Mableton Elementary in Cobb, and we are also one of two elementary school that are STEM and STEAM certified.

Ashley Mengwasser: Double certifications.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Not boasting or anything. Well, can you both describe your roles in science education for our audience? We'll start with you Erin.

Erin Rehberg: Sure. Well, I am the Digital Learning Director. I just oversee all of the software implementation in our district and coordinate the efforts of our K12 computer science program. Before that I was a school media specialist and before that a high school English teacher. So I am not a professional programmer or trained coder, but happy to be the champion and cheerleader for those efforts in our school district.

Ashley Mengwasser: And yet here you are.

Erin Rehberg: That's right.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you've had quite a few lives in education, which is impressive. Tamieka, tell us about your role.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yeah. So as the innovation specialist at Mableton Elementary I am responsible for maintaining our STEM and STEAM certifications, integrated in science across the all discipline school-wide STEM, STEAM events. So anything STEM, STEAM science that's me. And like Erin, I do not come from a computer science background or programing I was a fourth and fifth grade teacher. Then I had a K-5 STEM lab for about five years and I am currently in my position as innovation specialist for three years.

Ashley Mengwasser: Did you say STEM, STEAM science?

Tamieka Grizzle: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: How do you say that 10 times fast? That's a mouthful. Let's dive into our subject today. I remember the first time I walked into a computer lab as a young student, honestly, I probably had a mixture of fear and excitement as a kid, but I did love the smell of the computer room though. All those components really intoxicating, but I'm curious what that journey is like from a teacher's perspective. So I know you mentioned, didn't specifically have computer backgrounds, but how did you first feel about teaching computer science? Were there initial fears because you didn't have that programming or coding background? Erin, you take this one first.

Erin Rehberg: Okay. Well, I have never actually been a computer science teacher I just work more at the district office in helping those teachers have what they need and the professional learning they need and making sure we're keeping our program going and growing. But I have been so impressed with all the professional learning I've attended with our computer science teachers at how many resources are available to help the teachers learn along with the students. And so I know we're going to talk probably in this conversation about misconceptions and fears about implementing computer science, but there are so many resources that really give the teacher steps to follow and ideas and turnkey programs that will just let their kids get their hands in there and get going with computer science and coding and programming. So I was nervous, but I've been pleased with the resources and how fast teachers can catch on and learn along with their students.

Ashley Mengwasser: Those resources do exist?

Erin Rehberg: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: Awesome. What was your first feeling of about teaching or not teaching, I guess for you either, but supporting computer science, Tamieka?

Tamieka Grizzle: Definitely apprehension. I knew nothing about computer science. I thought it was going to be JavaScript, C++, all the complicated computer science language.

Ashley Mengwasser: You already lost me. Yes.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yes. And I started my interest was in robotics and I saw cute little robots like Sphero Robotic Balls, dash and dot robots where they can move and talk to each other and different robots like Ozobots. And then my specialty is block-based coding so I am not there with the techy C+, Java. Yeah. That's not me, but when I introduced computer science to the students I was still a little bit nervous. I didn't have a strong background, but I knew that kids are so resilient. They are digital native, they know way more than I do. And so I did start off with code.org and that made me feel comfortable and I knew when I taught the basics of code.org, moving characters around using block-based coding was my safe place. And so that's what I took and developed more with me teaching computer science in an elementary setting.

Ashley Mengwasser: Erin foreshadowed this, I'm convinced she sees the future Tamieka, so we're going to have to circle up with her after this. But Erin, what are some common misconceptions about being able to teach or implement computer science instruction?

Erin Rehberg: Yes. Well, I think one misconception is that the teacher has to be the expert.

Ashley Mengwasser: Not true.

Erin Rehberg: Not true, not true. What we've seen happen is the teacher thrives as they learn along with their students. And so I feel like teachers like to be the expert in the room, but with computer science it's all about learning as you go, about building resiliency, about failing and trying again. And so I think teachers just have to be comfortable with being a little uncomfortable in order to see their students grow.

Ashley Mengwasser: Beautifully said. Beautifully said. Any misconceptions you've seen, Tamieka?

Tamieka Grizzle: Definitely. I am a huge proponent of introducing computer science at an early age. So my favorite time to introduce computer science is K-2, kindergarten through second grade.

Ashley Mengwasser: That early?

Tamieka Grizzle: I have done many conferences and spoke at conferences about introducing it's called Start Them Early, K-2 learning with computer science and the misconception is they won't understand, they'll get frustrated. But again, that block-based coding is their comfort zone. So, as early as kindergarten they can begin coding. It's not that complicated as people think. So, get that misconception out of your head the babies can do it.

Ashley Mengwasser: Put me to shame over here. Anything to add, Erin?

Erin Rehberg: Yeah, I think another misconception is that this is something for our really bright students or our gifted students or something we should or could do in an after school club. But I think it's really beneficial when we allow all of our students the opportunity to learn computer science and coding. And as Tamieka said, start them early. I think if we wait until middle or high school-

Ashley Mengwasser: That's too late.

Erin Rehberg: ... It's too late. I mean, it's not too late, but I just think we're going to get their interest earlier and I'm sure we're going to talk about some of the other skills that come along with learning to programming code that are beneficial for students just at that formative age of K-2.

Ashley Mengwasser: Why is a strong foundation in computer science so important for young learners in terms of their educational experience? You want to take this one first, Tamieka?

Tamieka Grizzle: Yeah, I think it definitely develops their problem solving skills. And with computer science, it's taking a problem and breaking it down into smaller pieces to understand and going from the abstract to the concrete. And like I said, these kindergartners can do it. So, if I work with a group of kindergartners I would use ScratchJr, it's an app, computer science coding app. And so if I tell them, have your character walk across the screen and do a cartwheel, that's abstract. Now they have to think how many steps do the characters have to take to get across to screen? How many rotations do the characters need to do a complete flip? So just developing those basic 4C skills, communication, collaboration, creativity, and critical thinking skills it's just a life... Those soft skills are life-learned lessons that are needed beyond the classroom.

Ashley Mengwasser: And you make another excellent point that working with computers can be creative. That's interesting.

Erin Rehberg: To echo that I always tell people our kids are consuming technology very early and they may think it's just magic how games work and videos are on YouTube for them to watch all day long, if they wanted to.

Ashley Mengwasser: I think it's magic.

Erin Rehberg: So helping them understand the science behind that I think is very important. Also Tamieka mentioned problem-solving and in a computer science setting letting kids know it's okay to fail, it's okay to mess up and start over. That's a life skill. Also, these kids are learning to read and learning to read there's some logic to it and you have to start at the left and move to the right and the same with coding. And so I think it reinforces literacy. It reinforces mathematical thinking, computational thinking, logical thinking. And we sort of have unspoken rule in our elementary computer science settings that no one programs alone. So it's building in that collaboration as well, which is just vital.

Ashley Mengwasser: You make an excellent point that we're letting students see from a very young age behind the curtain that this isn't magic, Erin as you've said before, that there is science to it and there's math and a lot of other skills. Let's look into their future a little bit shall we? And prognosticate here, let's spit some truth. Data feels appropriate for this conversation. So the US Bureau of Labor Statistics projects job outlook by profession every decade and job outlook projects the percent change in employment numbers. So for computer and information research scientist do you want to guess the projected growth rate for 2020 to 2030? And I'll tell you this, the average for all occupations is 8%. So do you think computer science is higher or lower?

Erin Rehberg: Higher.

Tamieka Grizzle: Definitely higher.

Ashley Mengwasser: Unanimous agreement. Do you want to guess 8%?

Tamieka Grizzle: Triple that.

Ashley Mengwasser: Triple that? What do you think, Erin?

Erin Rehberg: I was thinking 48.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh, I love where you're going. I think you're... See, she's already in the future, but you're pretty much spot on there Tamieka. It's at 22%.

Erin Rehberg: Okay.

Ashley Mengwasser: Which is almost triple, but the point is it's growing so fast. Well, we're not in Silicon Valley, we know that we're here in Georgia, but Georgia has actually some of the highest computer and math jobs per capita which is surprising and amazing. What's your reaction to that, Erin? Is it even more important that we're exposing students to this early?

Erin Rehberg: Oh, yeah. Knowing those statistics and knowing the opportunities we have in K-2 and K-12 to have our students learning about computer science I mean, it's our responsibility to prepare these students for the jobs that it's hard to even say will await them because they already are awaiting them. And so, yes, I definitely feel like it's our responsibility to prepare students for these jobs.

Tamieka Grizzle: And I feel like the Cobb County school district recognizes that because recently they have implemented a K-12 computer science curriculum. So that is something that is being taught in middle schools through high school, but it's optional in elementary setting.

Erin Rehberg: And another thing I'd like to add is those jobs it doesn't say X number of computer science jobs for boys. It's jobs and we've got to prepare all of our students, girls, students with special needs, other underrepresented groups for those jobs as well. So that means involving all of our students in computer science, not just the smart kids in an after school club but all of them.

Ashley Mengwasser: The every kid.

Erin Rehberg: Yes.

Ashley Mengwasser: And I know not all of the students that you guys are working with now will make this their occupation, but how does computer science prepare them for success in any occupation as adults?

Tamieka Grizzle: I remember going on a adult teacher field trip it was with the Cobb Teacher Leadership Academy STEM division. We went to Home Depot and the question was, what do employees need to work at Home Depot? It wasn't learning the job trade, it wasn't learning the logistics of the job. It was those soft skills. Working together with a partner, being able to follow directions, using creativity to solve problems. So these are skills that are needed, not just those job embedded skills, but the soft skills that comes from computer science that I observe and heard from a Home Depot executive saying this is what we're looking for in employees.

Ashley Mengwasser: Anything to add about the benefit to their future self?

Erin Rehberg: Oh, she said that so beautifully.

Ashley Mengwasser: She said it so well.

Erin Rehberg: Actually heard a keynote speaker at a conference just yesterday talking about how those soft skills are growing on that list of things employers are looking for. And I think coming out of the pandemic too, those kids were at home for so long. And so any time we can give them the chance to work with each other to solve a problem-

Ashley Mengwasser: With their cohort.

Erin Rehberg: Yes. It's just so vitally important.

Ashley Mengwasser: Vitally important, keywords. Well, help us understand what exactly they're learning. This may be over my head, but let's talk elementary school, these are young learners their age is five to 11. During that span of years, what general computer skills are they being taught? You go first, Tamieka.

Tamieka Grizzle: So the basic general skills that I know that I can teach to my kids are the terminology. I introduced the terminology as young as kindergarten, algorithm, step by step instruction to solve a problem. We talk about brushing your teeth, getting ready for school in the mornings, getting to the bus stop. That's an algorithm. We talk about loops, repeating, sequencing. We talk about debugging, how to fix a problem within your code, if you see a problem. So I teach the vocabulary, but I don't really hone in on that. I try to be more hands on, but I need them to understand what you're doing, what is it called? And you know, how does that work? So the vocabulary to me is really important, but more importantly is getting them hands on and seeing the vocabulary words come to life.

Ashley Mengwasser: Erin, you've seen some of these skills in practice, I think?

Erin Rehberg: Oh, yes. I have a great story about that just recently I was in our third and fourth grade. It was actually a third grade class in their coding class and the teacher had them doing a block-based coding activity on code.org at the first part of class. And then the second part, they knew they were already going to get to get in the floor and program their robot to go toss a ball into a cup or something, you know something fun. And the little girl that I was watching turned around and she looked at me and she was like, "This on the Chromebook is okay, but I love getting in the floor and coding that robot." And I'm like, here is a girl in South Georgia programming a robot as a third grader. I love it. It's so exciting.

Ashley Mengwasser: And she wanted to get on the floor with that machine. I love that.

Erin Rehberg: Oh, yeah. Yeah.

Ashley Mengwasser: How do you both integrate computer science instruction at your schools? You may have some different approaches we'll go with you first in this, Erin.

Erin Rehberg: Yeah. Well, I'm at the district office and so I get to see what they're doing in all of the school. And we've really tried to help our teachers come up with creative ways, of course, they do coding in a separate coding class, but you know working with them to understand ways they can incorporate those skills in the regular classroom as well. We had a second grade teacher just recently using Bee-Bots, which are little programmable robots. It looks like a bee.

Ashley Mengwasser: Tamieka is nodding she knows-

Erin Rehberg: With the yellow jackets in our systems.

Ashley Mengwasser: Oh how apropos.

Erin Rehberg: We have ordered all the Bee-Bots. That's right. But they had drawn a map of the state of Georgia on the floor and it's the second grade standard to learn the regions of the state. So they were programming the robot to travel to the different regions and then using their Chromebook to do a little research about the region of Georgia that they had programmed the Bee-Bots to go to. So they were working together, they were collaborating, they were using research skills. It was just that's what we want to see.

Ashley Mengwasser: I love that story. What do you have, Tamieka? How was computer science being integrated at your school?

Tamieka Grizzle: Yeah, so in the past when I had my K-5 STEM lab it was science-based. So everything we learned about all the science concepts, the water cycle, force in motion, light and sound was taught through robotics. So for example, students will take chart paper and they will draw a model of the water cycle and then program Sphero, is a robotic ball and they had to program it to each phase of the water cycle. And the cool thing about Sphero it can talk. So if you program the robot to talk, it will say this stage is precipitation where you have water I mean, rains, sleet, hail, snow. Then have to program the ball to the next phase and that's not easy because you have to think mathematically, how fast do you want to roll the ball? How slow the distance and understanding the concept behind the water cycle. So mine was pretty much science-embedded, but then I would use these little tiny robots called Ozobots for ELAs, a little tiny spares it's so tiny.

Ashley Mengwasser: I want one.

Tamieka Grizzle: But the cool thing is it uses color to code. So like red, blue and green will move it forward like green, black, and yellow will move it zig-zag. So the students will read a book and then use the Ozobot as a character to summarize what the character did in that book. So they will say, the character was afraid of the thunder and lightning, so it rolled into the home. So it has to code the little Ozobot to move forward, zig-zag and spin into the house. So it was just really fun bringing content and computer science together to pique their interest more to learning the science concept or in ELA project.

Ashley Mengwasser: This is so dynamic. I can't see students being resistant to this. I mean, they're having the best time.

Erin Rehberg: Right. Ashley so you mentioned misconceptions I think a layperson or even a teacher who hasn't implement computer science may think it's just writing code, but there's so much more to it.

Ashley Mengwasser: More than ones and zeros.

Erin Rehberg: Oh, exactly. Way more than ones and zeros.

Tamieka Grizzle: And I don't get ones and zeros.

Ashley Mengwasser: We don't even have to go there. Let's not, let's not. Well, what challenges do you face in integrating this type of curriculum? Anything come to mind?

Tamieka Grizzle: So one of the challenges I see currently in my school, teachers will ask me to come into the classroom and implement a science activity with the robots. And the issue I see with that, I don't mind doing that, but I want them to see that you can do it too. So they're dependent on me, but like we talk about this today. We want more teachers to get involved with computer science and the more I can model it for them and do it and with them, I will hope that they will be more comfortable doing it. So that's one thing I would say will be a challenge. Just getting more teachers involved and letting down those walls of apprehension.

Ashley Mengwasser: Encouraging them to run with it.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yes.

Erin Rehberg: Yeah. And I think time is always a concern or issue. You know, K-2 teachers feel like I have to teach these kids how to read and how to do math. And so I think it's just helping teachers understand how you can integrate computer science with those other standards and other things they have to teach their students.

Ashley Mengwasser: And this is equally foundational in a digital age, right?

Erin Rehberg: Of course.

Ashley Mengwasser: Reading, writing, computer science.

Erin Rehberg: Absolutely.

Ashley Mengwasser: The trifecta. How can all teachers integrate computer science? So maybe they're not a science teacher, any successful strategies?

Tamieka Grizzle: For me, code.org I feel like that is a foundation. I started with code.org they had professional development and you can go on their website and you can see all the instructors that are in the area and they'll come to your school and train you. And we do not right away like coding on screen. What do they call it? Screen-

Erin Rehberg: Unplugged.

Tamieka Grizzle: Unplugged. Yes. Unplugged coding, where you use body movements and directional cues to complete a program. And then you get into the website where it has like different activities and games K all the way through 12. And if you want to take a little bit further code.org does take you to that deep computer science understanding of JavaScript and C++. And they have courses that you can take, but code.org for me was the foundation from to get started.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a success strategy.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yeah.

Erin Rehberg: Code.org is fantastic because they make it so engaging for the students. You know, there may be a game from a movie that they recognize or a cartoon character that they know and everything on there is just so turnkey and it keeps up with the students progress. And when I say turnkey, I mean, the teacher can pretty much just tell the kids get on code.org and it walks them through everything they need to know and do.

Ashley Mengwasser: Do you have any other teaching tips for teachers out there?

Tamieka Grizzle: Let down your guard. Let your inhibitions go and just do it. Make mistakes like Erin said, but don't be afraid to fail.

Ashley Mengwasser: It's so freeing, Tamieka.

Tamieka Grizzle: Yeah. You're getting in your own way.

Erin Rehberg: Right. Or find another teacher that you can collaborate with.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's a good idea.

Erin Rehberg: Yeah. Look on Twitter or Facebook for groups that you can follow and get ideas because you may be the only one who's interested in doing this at your school. And you feel like you don't have anyone to collaborate with, but go online, look for a professional learning network online as well.

Ashley Mengwasser: That's really good. In your experience is this type of instructor relegated to just the science teachers and the math teachers, or can a teacher in any discipline take this up and implement?

Tamieka Grizzle: Absolutely. Any discipline. You were talking about the regions of Georgia that's what? Social studies I need to also talk about that in science. I think any subject you can implement computer science.

Erin Rehberg: And Tamieka mention reading a book and then drawing the story and having little Ozobots robot follow the story. So that's literacy, it's computer science. It's beautiful.

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes. Well-rounded curriculum. Well, we know one way to get kids interested in computer science is to make instruction fun. And you two have proven that computer science instruction is already fun, but I'm talking about games and GPB released a new game called Claw Control. And Erin here was involved in that. Erin, what was your role in the development of Claw Control?

Erin Rehberg: Yeah, just kind of provided the K-2 perspective on how students would be able to follow the directions and play the game and some insight for what might be appealing to kids. And the finished product is now out and it is so much fun. I actually got to have my first grade son's class test it out. And this is when it was still being tested. And the teacher sent me a text and said, "Please, don't take this link away. Can we have this? The kids love this." And so what the kids have to do is that there are little gashlings, little characters.

Ashley Mengwasser: They're so cute.

Erin Rehberg: Yes. They're so cute and so they have different tasks to do at an arcade. And so really it's you know those logic model activities we used to do where only one person can be doing something at a time. Yeah. And so it's just a hands-on version of a logic model that involves decomposition and that word is used in the game. So there's a problem only one gosling at a time and where do they need to go in order to complete all the task? But it's been so interesting to go from the sketch of the game to then watching kids play it. And GPB did a great job with that game.

Tamieka Grizzle: Awesome.

Ashley Mengwasser: And the game itself for our listeners, it is exactly like the machine in Toy Story where the little aliens go, the club. That is the game and all the little gashlings have little jobs. It's really cute. I played in case you can't tell, I actually got on there yesterday and I played every level available. And before I knew it, it was time to cook dinner. I just got too engaged, but it was really fun. Adults can play, kids can play and they can play at gpb.org/clawcontrol. It'll take you right there. But gosh, those gashlings are so darn cute. Have you played Tamieka?

Tamieka Grizzle: I have not, but now I'm definitely going to go home and play after this.

Ashley Mengwasser: Your students are going to have to play the music, the colors, Erin.

Erin Rehberg: And for teachers, I think it's really appealing because the students can just click the link and they're in, they don't have to have an account or-

Ashley Mengwasser: Yes.

Erin Rehberg: Which can be a barrier sometime, but it's pretty much just click and go and fun and you're learning and it's awesome.

Ashley Mengwasser: Click to play. Brilliant design, good job with that one and hopefully everybody will join and play. I would not want to game against either of you for the record. I would never do it. What's on the horizon for both of you next at your schools, anything to tease?

Tamieka Grizzle: Well, last year at the height of COVID, I introduced coding and robotics using KIBO robots. Now, KIBO these square robots and they use like actual blocks. So then you take the KIBO, which is like boxy-looking and you scan each block to do the algorithm or the program. So it was a small group. My principal allowed me to have a really small group from maybe six K-2 students. And so I'm thinking about bringing that coding and robotics club back this year. Things are kind of settling so I feel like our kids really need it and they keep asking me every day, "Dr. Grizzle when are we going to have to class again?" Yes. I've definitely have to bring that back.

Ashley Mengwasser: Bring it back, Tamieka. Erin, what about you?

Erin Rehberg: Well, not necessarily at our elementary level, but at our middle school level we've been asked to pilot and have some teachers involved with AI for Georgia artificial intelligence. But because I feel like we're training these kids in elementary school and they've already developed so many skills. I'm excited to see what they learn in that AI course and what those teachers are able to develop. Very exciting.

Ashley Mengwasser: Thomas and Cobb Counties have got it going on, thank to Erin and Tamieka. Thank you so much for being here today.

Erin Rehberg: Thank you for having me.

Tamieka Grizzle: Thank you.

Ashley Mengwasser: You guys are awesome. That's all for this episode of Classroom Conversations. No matter where in Georgia you're logging into your computer today, just know you're a great teacher. Goodbye.