Hastings High School students Jaden Martinez, Milton Lindgren, C.J. Brenny and Riley Biermaier were arranging shapes Sept. 12.

It was an "unplugged day" in their computer science class and their teacher, Jessie Holm, had posed a challenge for her 34 students — find the 27 combinations they could make with a set of three shapes. The idea was for them to create their own number system so, in turn, the students would better understand the systems used in computing.

"The main focus of our whole curriculum is problem solving through computer science," Holm said, who is teaching the course for the first time. "Technology is always [used] to solve a problem."

While Hasting Middle School has had some aspects of computer science in its courses in the past, this is the first year that the high school is specifically offering a course that's focused on computer science, coding and principals.

If that's surprising, it shouldn't be.

According to an analysis of 39 states by Code.org, a coding education advocacy organization, 45% of high schools offer it. Minnesota wasn't part of that study, but Maggie Glennon, director of state government affairs for Code.org, said they've found only 20% of high schools in Minnesota offer computer coding classes.

For students, and the future careers that will be available for them, that presents a problem, she said.

"Computing is a part of our daily lives ... every career has some facet of computing to it now," she said. "It's really important we're giving students skills to go into the world."

However, it can often take legislative change before substantial progress is made in class offerings at the state level. And at the local level, schools have to find ways to add the class without draining from other offerings and find teachers who are prepared to lead the classes.

Challenges at the state, local level

The district had computer science and coding courses in the works for a few years, said Jenn Reichel, the district's director of teaching and learning.

They had completed a curriculum review which showed the opportunity for a new class and knew that community members wanted more science, technology, engineering and math classes. The idea is for the computer science classes to be an extension of the math curriculum, particularly for students in advanced placement courses.

But the district also wanted something that was accessible for both high-end students and younger students coming out of the middle school, she said.

"Really this was the sweet spot of 'we want to meet the needs for what our community is looking for ... the curriculum is looking for and the journey of kids going out of the middle school,'" Reichel said.

Before instituting the class though, district staff wanted to make sure it wouldn't pull too many students from other electives and that there were teachers who were willing to get trained to teach the classes.

"We want to make sure we have a well-thought out plan before we move forward," Reichel said.

Hastings High School teacher Jessie Holm checks in on a group of students in her computer science class on Sept. 12. Photo by David Clarey / Rivertown Multimedia
Hastings High School teacher Jessie Holm checks in on a group of students in her computer science class on Sept. 12. Photo by David Clarey / Rivertown Multimedia

Code.org offers training for teachers to try and alleviate those issues for districts, Glennon said.

Other barriers exist. She pointed to a misunderstanding of what computer science is and said that often people confuse a rebranded keyboarding class to "computer science," she said.

"I think it comes down to an issue of just understanding what computer science is," Glennon said.

The group also focuses on lobbying at the state level and has seen coding classes grow the most in states that embrace policy change.

She pointed to a states like Arkansas and Rhode Island which saw growth in coding curriculum after instituting statewide policies that mandate funding for teacher training, require high schools to teach computer science or develop K-12 computer science standards.

"It really doesn't matter what region [the state is from] ... what those states have in common is really engaged coalitions," Glennon said.

Hastings growing its coding curriculum, teachers learning too

In 2017, Holm, then a middle school teacher, received a brochure from Code.org that detailed how she could receive training to teach coding for free through the organization. So the following summer she did that along with her colleague Lori Best and was ready to teach it.

"Any time a teacher can get free professional development, they usually jump at it," Holm said.

However, she changed positions and became a high school teacher the following year. Wanting to capitalize on the middle school training, she followed that up with another training this last summer.

Now, Holm's teaching a computer science class that broadly covers various computer science topics — anything from big data to coding. The idea though is for next year to have a colleague start teaching a second class that is focused specifically on coding.

And, so far, the students are engaged with the courses, she said. They say they're taking it for a variety of reasons.

Martinez, Lindgren, Brenny and Biermaier — the four students matching shapes from the class — cited potentially wanting to pursue a degree computer science, the fact that its a new course and the widespread usage of computers in their daily lives as reasons.

With the class being so new, Holm says she is learning as much as they are and that idea is a core philosophy of her training — she's the lead learner among the students.

"I'm learning along with them, and I think sometimes they're like 'oh lady, you got a lot to go,'" Holm said, laughing.