Students learning to code as early as Pre-K, teachers say

ROANOKE COUNTY, Va. - These days, some elementary school students are learning more than traditional subjects like reading, writing and math - they're also being taught how to code.

Coding involves writing the instructions that make computer programs and devices like robots operate.

"Programming is like when you're giving instructions, and then when you get instructions, then you're telling it what to do and how to do it," said Carter Graffeo, a third grader at Fort Lewis Elementary School in Roanoke County. "If somebody didn't know how to make a peanut butter sandwich, you would give them instructions."

Coding has been part of the curriculum at Roanoke County elementary schools for the past few years. Every elementary school student in the district learns how to code at some point - some as early as Pre-K, according to teachers.

"They never cease to amaze me," said Meg Swecker, coordinator of technology integration for Roanoke County Public Schools. "I think that it's going to be too hard for them - they pick up on these concepts immediately, and they run with it."

Swecker teaches coding lessons to students. There is nationwide push to get more students to learn programming, she said, and that means teachers have to learn it as well.

"I didn't even know what coding was until maybe three years ago," said Kathy Austin, a fourth grade teacher at Green Valley Elementary School.

After being trained, Austin said she found that coding incorporates several subjects already being taught in schools.

"Obviously, people would think of coding as being math and science, but there's also some real language to it that is important for reading, for English," she said.

With robots running the floors and characters coming to life on computer screens, students in Roanoke County are excited about coding.

"Coding is a lot of problem-solving and critical thinking," said Tina Coffey, an instructional technology resource teacher.

Coffey oversees the coding club at Fort Lewis Elementary School. The club, which was started this year and is the first elementary coding club in the district, is about 45 students strong, she said. 

At coding club, students participate in activities like coding computer games and programming robots.

"We were completely blown away by the number of students that were interested in actually staying after school to do coding," Coffey said.

"I would be hard-pressed to find a field where you don't need to have computer science skills to succeed," said Ali Butt, a computer science professor at Virginia Tech.

The demand for computer science skills in the work force will continue to grow, Butt said. And that demand for those workers is reflected in his class sizes.

But women are in even greater demand.

"We want girls to understand that they have got a very important role in coding and engineering and math and sciences," Swecker said.

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, less than 20 percent of people earning bachelor's degrees in computer science are women.

"What we need to do as computer scientists, as educators is to engage those girls so that they continue to stay in the field," Butt said. "Come to the computer science field, and you have that opportunity to make an impact."

At coding club, there are signs of promise that the gender gap will close.

"I just want to help the people who cannot code for them to learn how they can code," said Elle Graffeo, a second grader who wants to teach coding when she grows up.

With the popularity of the coding club at Fort Lewis, teachers are considering adding coding clubs at other elementary schools in the district, Coffey said.

After WFXR News filmed this story, Tina Coffey was named U.S. Teacher of the Year by Level Up Village. The organization partners schools in different countries to work on STEM projects together.

Coffey said her fifth grade students at Oak Grove Elementary School teamed up with students in Honduras, Argentina and Nicaragua to design and print 3D solar flashlights.

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