Leading Edge: New Upper School Technology Courses

"When it comes to technology, our goal is for students to leave GCDS with the knowledge and tools to be successful—to be leaders,” says Tom Hart, director of technology. Eighteen years ago, that goal inspired GCDS to become one of the first schools to introduce a 1:1 laptop program for seventh through ninth grade students—a step that has facilitated innovation in teaching and learning for almost two decades. This year, Country Day is taking another substantial step by introducing a new Upper School technology curriculum designed to prepare students to be creators, leaders, and well-informed users of technology as they go on to high school.

Country Day’s technology curriculum, which begins with hand-on STEAM projects and block-based coding in kindergarten, now extends all the way through ninth grade with the addition of Intro to Computer Science Principles, a year-long course for all seventh graders, and Computer and Mechanical Engineering, a new elective course for eighth and ninth graders. In addition to the Robotics Club, which continues to build on its successful launch last year, these new courses provide important learning opportunities for students whose world is shaped by technology and who, in turn, will shape the technologies of the future.

Intro to Computer Science Principles

Based on the high school Computer Science Principles curriculum developed by Code.org—a non-profit supported by leaders in the tech industry such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg—Country Day’s CSP course is adapted to be developmentally appropriate for seventh graders while also giving them the foundation for taking the AP computer science principles exam in high school.

Taught by Mr. Rosenfeld, this wide-ranging course enables students to experience app prototyping and design; discuss key questions of technology and ethics; learn languages such as HTML, CSS, JavaScript, and Python; and explore the tech startup experience through an entrepreneurial “Shark Tank” challenge.

“When we learned that this year we were doing a coding class every week, we were really excited,” says seventh grader Annie, who started a coding club last year with classmate Alexa. “Mr. Rosenfeld makes it really fun when we do coding. It’s not boring at all. We get to play a lot of games that involve coding and will help us improve.”

“Coding isn’t really about memorizing lines of code; it’s more about knowing the concepts so that you can apply it to whatever you’re doing. You start to think outside the box and start to see how coding fits in everywhere,” says Rory. “I like this class because there’s so many opportunities that you get in life from learning to code. I would love to be an engineer or an inventor in some way.”

From the first class, CSP has encouraged our seventh graders to think in new ways about the technology that surrounds them. After a memorable and laughter-filled moment when the students realized that in signing the terms of agreement for the class they had unknowingly agreed to send their parents a photo of a baby goat every day, the students raised thoughtful questions about why companies and products have required terms of agreements. They then re-wrote their own, goat-free agreement for the CSP class.

The third week of class held another surprise when they learned that software developers at Google often use paper and post-it notes to rapidly prototype new ideas before writing a single line of code. Using this technique, students planned out their app concepts before building their apps using Code.org App Lab.

This prototyping practice and the introduction to Python, as well as CSS, HTML, and JavaScript, all lay the foundation for the exciting “Shark Tank” challenge later in the year. After identifying a technology solution that solves a problem or meets a need, the students will build out a functional prototype of their idea. “They will document their original idea and how it changes,” explains Mr. Rosenfeld. “The changes are where you really learn about project management. This is just as much an introduction to the tech startup world as it is a class on learning to code.”

Reflecting on the success of last year’s hackathon, which helped spark the introduction of the new Upper School courses, Mr. Rosenfeld notes, “Both the computer and the mechanical engineering were popular with girls and boys. At many high schools, girls are not actively encouraged to code, and we feel that as an elementary and middle school we have an obligation to offer them as much opportunity as possible. I see it as a personal mission to have a class where they feel empowered to take control of their education.”

Computer and Mechanical Engineering

Like CSP, the new Computer and Mechanical Engineering elective for eighth and ninth graders helps encourage students to view problem solving and the process of innovation in new ways. In Mr. Martinez’s class, “TMI” is a good thing because it stands for “Think. Make. Invent.”

Surrounded by a range of computer-controlled tools—including a Shopbot, which can carve and shape wood and metal; a laser cutter, which can cut and engrave a wide range of materials; a 3-D printer; as well as a drill, sanding machine, band saw, and soldering machine—the students experience expanded opportunities for building and making.

Working with these tools, they learn the importance of taking something and making it better. They realize that the process of invention is never done and that the companies and objects that are part of our everyday lives—from Facebook to intermittent windshield wipers on our car—all have an inspiring story of invention.

Though the machines and software in the CME lab make a wide range of projects possible, all these projects have one thing in common: the need for persistence.

This fall, the group designing a cable car, which was inspired by the computer-controlled Skycams used to film NFL games, discovered that their first cable car had numerous problems. “We were not happy with its performance,” they explained at the end-of-term presentation. “The gears needed lubricant and were unstable.” Using what they learned about gears from the first model, they designed a second, much larger cable car.

Reflecting on what was most challenging about the two projects he worked on that required a lot of soldering, Jack notes, “When you have a big project like an amplifier where you solder everything on, screw everything in, and then it doesn’t work. You have to go back. Do trouble shooting, re-solder stuff, test. But when it does work on the first try, it’s definitely rewarding.”

Many of the students are taking CME again for the winter term and will use lessons learned from the first terms to help them with on-going projects. Axel, for example, who learned to use the three dimensional design program VCarve will continue refining his design for carving the Fibonacci sequence using the Shopbot. And Teddy, who is designing a turbine engine, will re-print the barrel using the 3-D printer and continue working with the Shopbot, drills, and grinders to shape the fans.

Just as the CME class is helping the students think differently about their own abilities and what is possible; it is also helping other schools to see our students in new ways. Returning from school visits, several of the ninth graders shared how some of the other school’s didn’t have the full range of machines and tools as Country Day’s lab and how the other schools were impressed with the design and engineering experience they’ve gained this fall.

As we look ahead, whether they are helping with community projects such as carving new table numbers for the dining hall, challenging themselves to understand Lorentz force and how to build an electromagnetically powered propulsion device, designing an app for hockey fans, learning Python, or envisioning the possibility that one day they’d like to be an engineer or an inventor, it will be exciting to see what our CME and CSP students dream up—and build!