Denison Elementary awarded $5,000 Computer Science is Elementary grant

Pictured from left are Greg Gunderson, director of technology for Denison Community School District; Darin Johnson, technology integrationist at Denison Elementary and Broadway Elementary schools; Stephanie Gierstorf, technology teacher at Denison Elementary School; and Chris Schulz, principal at Denison Elementary School. Johnson and Gierstorf wrote the grant for Denison Elementary School. The four are pictured at the Future Ready Iowa-STEM Summit in Des Moines today.  Photo submitted

Even before it received a $50,000 grant through the Computer Science is Elementary project, Denison Elementary School, with the backing of administration and the school board, was ready to proceed with a revamping of the computer lab into a STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) classroom designed to foster the four Cs that businesses want – communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking.

To receive the grant was just the icing on the cake, said Denison Elementary Principal Chris Schulz.

Last week at the Future Read Iowa-STEM Summit in Des Moines, Gov. Kim Reynolds announced Denison Elementary and five other schools as recipients of $50,000 grants for the first year of the Computer Science is Elementary project.

The goal of the program is to create opportunities for students and a statewide network of computer science expertise.

Loess Hills Computer Programming School in Sioux City, the inspiration for the Computer Science is Elementary project, also will receive a $50,000 grant to serve as a project resource.

“What’s nice is our school board and administration and faculty were all on board with this even last summer,” said Principal Chris Schulz. “They knew we needed some changes in our lab.

“We started putting some things together in early winter, went to the school board and gave them our plan and also said we were applying for the $50,000 grant. The board asked what it would take to implement the plan no matter if we got the grant.”

He said the key changes are to improve from the old system of a computer

lab and computers that are stationary to more student engagement and more diversity of technology, from robotics to programming code and from building materials to engineering, going beyond the traditional computer lab and computer class.

The grant was written by Darin Johnson, technology integrationist at Denison Elementary and Broadway Elementary, and Stephanie Gierstorf, technology teacher at Denison Elementary, in collaboration with Greg Gunderson, director of technology for the school district.

“When we added Stephanie’s position here (at Denison Elementary) a few years back, we thought about how we were going to take computers beyond the lab and get them more involved in the classroom,” Schulz explained.

“Darin has done that with his technology integrationist position, not just for the kids but for our staff, too.”

“We had the people in place. Then we had to put the resources with the people,” Schulz continued.

Denison Elementary has run a tech club for a number of years. Schulz said now what is being done in the tech club can get out to all 650 students in the building, instead of 20 kids at a time in tech club during each quarter.

Gierstorf explained that last fall after Schulz and others focused on the outdated computer lab at the elementary school, visits were made to schools in Okoboji and Spencer to see how their STEM labs are set up. After that visit, an email was sent out announcing that applications were being accepted for the grant.

The STEM curriculum at Denison Elementary will be for students in kindergarten through third grade, handled the same as the specials that students attend on a rotating basis. Other specials are physical education, art and music.

“But one of the requirements or recommendations of the grant is that we push the computer science and the coding out into the classes as well, so it’s not just an isolated discipline,” said Johnson. “Students can also see how it is used in math and literacy and other substance areas.”

The school district will be responsible for putting in furniture, tables and other furnishing in the STEM classroom to create the type of collaborative setting where students can work together in small groups instead of at isolated stations.

The grant money will be used to purchase more coding materials, robotics and STEM programs.

The program is not going to be fully implemented next year but will be done in stages over the course of the next two years.

“Hopefully by the time school starts in August, we will have the furniture in place and a few lessons ready to roll out,” said Gierstorf. “Over the next two years we will be working on the curriculum.”

Johnson said the technology team is going to pull from a variety of sources to develop the new curriculum. They will use computer science standards, Iowa Core standards and 21st century skills.

Gierstorf added that they will tour the Loess Hills School in Sioux City this fall to see the type of curriculum that school uses.

It’s evident that students are becoming more adept with technology at a younger level.

Johnson said that the first year the second graders, for example, were given Chromebooks, just to have them log in was an ordeal.

“By the time you got them logged in, it didn’t leave a lot of time for lessons,” he said.

“Just over the span of five or six years, the ability to log in and navigate a website is much, much better than it used to be,” he added.

Johnson said the technology teams throughout the district will meet to see how the new curriculum at the elementary school will fit into the curriculum as students advance through the grades.

Gierstorf said a big focus on teaching students in teams is to enhance creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and community. She said that businesses have those skills and want employees to be able to manage those work themes.

Johnson explained that the collaborative learning environment is something that also stems from the business partners that are paired with classrooms at Denison Elementary School.

“They’re the ones that can tell what their employees need. They are a great resources and offer career awareness,” he said. “One of the business partners said they start targeted at the elementary grade level. At the high school level it’s too late to stimulate that interest.”

Gunderson added that the four Cs – communication, collaboration, creativity and critical thinking - are really big right now in STEM and computer science.

“Those are skills that we’re trying to bolster and reinforce and create in a learning environment,” he said.

Some teacher professional development is provided for in the grant.

“We meet as a group several times a year, discussing the continuity of these programs to make sure we’re on the right track, so the students can grow as they progress through the grade levels,” said Gunderson.

“Our district has been wonderful with the technology resources and the people we have to help head that up,” said Schulz. “Greg is a servant leader; he really helps serve the kids not just with technology and the system and how it works but helping them to think outside the box.

“To be one the first ones to receive this is definitely an honor and a privilege, and more so for the people who put the time in to prepare for that, from Darin and Stephanie to Greg’s vision at the district level, and the support of Superintendent Pardun and the school board saying that they’d back us up whether we got the grant or not,” said Schulz.

He said the benefit for the students is to provide a foundation to help develop the skills and motivation to be productive in the jobs they are presented with in the future.

“The future starts now,” Schulz said.

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