Making Computer Science Accessible to All

When computer science came to St. Anne's-Belfield several years ago, faculty members didn’t want to simply add a robotics club or create a stand-alone class or elective. Instead, they sought to create a program that would be integrated across all grade levels, span all disciplines from math and science to language and humanities, and would focus on project-based learning and problem-solving. Today, they have a curriculum that can serve as an example to schools across the country.

“Even nationally, it’s hard to find a model like ours,” says Beth Miller, the School’s associate head of academics. “When you hear about computer science at other schools, it tends to be more programming focused, whereas we focus on computational thinking and the application of computer science thinking into other areas.”

According to Zach Minster, the Upper School’s computer science instructor, the biggest misconception about computer science is that it’s all writing programs or codes. But he says it’s actually more about students learning to solve problems they haven’t seen before.

In the Learning Village, students create mazes with an app, learn card tricks using binary math and design robots. In the Upper School, computer science puts learning in the hands of the students: they are given the freedom to complete projects that interest them, such as a 3D model of an atom, and are part of a teaching assistant program, where they mentor their schoolmates. Students also participate in the program’s annual SPARK! Hackathon, working with industry experts to solve real-world problems through technology, visible thinking routines and systems thinking.

The School’s computer science programming has extended its reach by providing education resources to the local community and beyond. St. Anne’s-Belfield created the annual CS Institute, a collaboration with the University of Virginia School of Education and the University of Virginia Department of Computer Science, with the goal of helping K-12 educators from all disciplines learn about computer science and find ways to incorporate it into their teaching. In addition to the SPARK! Hackathon, which is open to high schoolers across the Charlottesville region, St. Anne’s-Belfield also offers a summer SPARK! Program for students. This year, the program was free and virtual, and over 180 campers registered, including students from Morocco and Haiti.

The goal of these initiatives is to make computer science accessible to all.

“Some schools might not have the resources to provide a dedicated computer science program to their students, and it would be a shame to lock this in an ivory tower,” says Minster. “It has been our mission from the beginning to get these resources out in the community.”

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