Kids These Days, Speaking in Code

Giving a tech-savvy generation the building blocks for tomorrow’s jobs
Kembly Berrocal, right, a teaching assistant at the Wainscott School, helped a young student with a coding activity during a technology lesson. Christine Sampson photos

Long gone are the days of school computer labs featuring boxy machines with monochrome green type and simplistic dot-matrix printers.

Recently, at the Springs School, a group of eighth-grade students raced plastic cars they built using parts they designed on computers and then brought to life using a 3-D printer.

At the Wainscott School, some of the South Fork’s littlest fingers assemble Lego pieces that are not your standard plastic bricks: The handles, wheels, gears, and other parts form tiny robots that serve to solve a problem or demonstrate a concept.

And in East Hampton, where a top administrator successfully lobbied the state for a new category of teaching certification, its first dedicated computer science teacher has been hired to teach a full slate of courses next year.

While each looks different, most public schools from Bridgehampton to Montauk have set up technology programs aimed at preparing kids for what experts say will be the careers of the future. The term used most often is “STEM,” which stands for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The National Science Foundation reports that the median salary for STEM jobs was $78,270 in 2012, compared to $34,750 that year for non-STEM jobs. It also reports that jobs in STEM fields are more recession-proof. U.S. News and World Report has said that many tech jobs go unfilled in the United States because workers don’t have proper training.

“We see that we’re no longer competing school district to school district. We have to get our students ready to compete on a global level,” said Katy Graves, the Sag Harbor superintendent. “They have to have exposure starting at a very young age to things like computer systems, coding, and robotics to see if they like it.”

Sag Harbor Elementary’s programs include a robotics and engineering club and one called STEM Challenge, in which students use technology to find answers or invent solutions to everyday problems. The school incorporates electrical engineering and computer science into its curriculum using Little Bits, which are electronic building blocks that snap together with magnets, and Tyn­ker, which allows kids to build games and apps, control robots, and even customize the popular video game Mine­craft. Pierson Middle and High School has a competitive robotics club and CyberPatriots teams that compete to protect networks from theoretical hacking attacks. Its International Baccalaureate program includes a rigorous computer science class.

Some districts, like Springs and East Hampton, have equipped students in certain entire grades with their own Chromebook laptops, which they can take home and treat as their own, but return to the school at the end of the year. They are relatively cheap, at $150 or $175 per device when bought in bulk.

The impact is being felt so deeply that even as the state’s tax-levy cap requires budget cuts almost across the board, administrators are finding ways to add or preserve technology.

“When a program makes sense, you don’t want to attack it at all,” said Stuart Rachlin, the Wainscott superintendent. “We just had to make sure we could find other areas to pare back and not put a successful program in jeopardy.”

Wainscott’s program goes beyond just Lego robotics. The school hired a technology specialist, Jeanette Gautier-Downes, to show children how coding works. Using a particular program — for the younger children it might look like colorful boxes with arrows showing directions like up, down, left, and right, but for high school students coding might include arranging tags in computer languages like HTML, Python, and Javascript — students are able to achieve an objective such as making a cartoon character move a certain way or building a game or program.

Ms. Gautier-Downes said STEM education encourages problem solving, self-correction, review and revision, perseverance, visualization, and, most importantly, fun and play — “so many of the skills you’re going to use for a lifetime,” she said. “I think it’s especially important for our younger kids.”

According to Eleanor Tritt, the Amagansett School superintendent, the school is adding a “maker space” in its library, which will provide space and tools for robotics and engineering, and potentially a 3-D printer. In its curriculum this year, the school introduced keyboarding for all grades, mouse-handling skills for kindergarteners and first graders, and lessons on internet safety and digital citizenship. Students designed their own websites using Weebly, a free online website building tool.

Springs received a grant from the Greater East Hampton Education Foundation to add coding and Lego robotics to its science program. “We talked about how robots are now being used in deep underwater searches, inside volcanoes, and the rovers on Mars,” said Sean Knight, a science teacher.

In Montauk, seventh and eighth graders do lot of hands-on building: model airplanes, bridges, rockets. “Every project we do has students thinking about the math and science behind it and allows them to build test models in order to see if their math and scientific calculations are accurate,” said Paul Salzman, an art teacher who helps with the science and technology program. Montauk will also expand its curriculum by hiring its first-ever dedicated elementary science teacher next year.

Robert Tymann, East Hampton’s assistant superintendent, was the administrator who successfully lobbied the state for a new teaching certification in coding. Eighty-two high school students have signed up for various computer science courses next year, including Advanced Placement computer science. Before the district found its new teacher, though, it had several science teachers working outside of their subject areas to teach coding from the high school all the way down to the elementary school. The program will be expanded to include building and repairing computers and website design.

“The big crescendo is to have senior- year internships that will give a viable path for some of our students to go directly into careers in computer coding,” Dr. Tymann said. “I think we’re doing a better job connecting what a student is learning in school to what their needs are going to be once they leave school.”

Across the districts that send children to East Hampton, there is an effort to make sure children are exposed to these concepts by the time they arrive at the high school.

The Bridgehampton School’s robotics program has been successful in its two years of existence, with its rookie team reaching the finals of an international competition last year. Traditional wood and metal shop programs have been transformed with the addition of robotics and electronics. Judiann Carmack-Fayyaz, the school’s resident jack-of-all-trades, will take a grant-funded course this summer to help her build a computer science program at the school. The school uses Code.org, which offers lessons and other resources to teachers and students for free, and makes use of an electronic ball called Sphero, which can be programmed with mathematical concepts and then rolls around to illustrate how the concepts work.

“It happens right in front of you,” said Jeff Neubauer, a Bridgehampton teacher. “The real concept is teaching something abstract, applying it to technology, and seeing it in a real-world situation, producing a real-world experience.”

Amahya Yannacone Vargas, an East Hampton High School student, worked on an engineering project using metal components in a class taught by Trevor Gregory.
Paige Francis and Lila Osborn, two Wainscott School students, showed off Lego robotics creations they made.