SIOUX CITY | Students at Loess Hills Elementary School navigate their peers through a maze in P.E. class with computer code, record videos of themselves reading to show their fluency and create computer quizzes to demonstrate they understand mathematical concepts such as fractions.
Before Loess Hills Elementary School opened in the fall of 2014, principal John Beeck said he and former Sioux City Community Schools technology director Neil Schroeder sought to transform the school, which combined Emerson and Roosevelt elementary schools, into something "new" and "unique." They came up with the idea to make it a specialty school where students would learn to communicate, collaborate, think critically and create through computer programming
"We couldn't look it up in a manual any place. We couldn't Google it, because nobody's done it," Beeck said of the computer programming specialty concept, which was woven through the entire curriculum at Loess Hills Elementary School by the spring of 2015.
Sioux City superintendent Paul Gausman said the district has a process for staff members to develop specialty concepts for elementary schools. He said faculty must thoroughly research their concept, which has to retain the teaching of the Iowa Core subjects -- math, science, social studies and language arts, draft a plan to implement it and then share that plan with the community. He said 85 percent of staff members at the elementary school have to agree with the specialty concept, which also must be approved by the school board.
"Loess Hills is unique in that they did not have another school they were using as a template somewhere else in the country," Gausman said. "At that time, we knew of no other computer science immersion schools or computer coding schools in the nation. They were pioneers in that."
Peek into classrooms at Loess Hills Elementary School and you'll see students staring at screens while wearing clunky pairs of headphones or seated at desks arranged in circles typing on laptops.
When Beeck and Schroeder were considering the specialty school concept, Beeck said "computer programming" was a buzzword in education, as students involved in before- and after-school clubs were experimenting with coding. Beeck and Schroeder decided to take the idea a step further by integrating computer programming into all subjects taught at Loess Hills Elementary School.
"Let's see if using that could help us teach math better or teach reading better and all of the other subjects," Beeck said. "Let's teach kids how to program because all jobs, all professions, everything is kind of controlled by computers and technology. Let's teach our kids about that, which might give them a leg up in the job market later on."
His future job prospects were on 11-year-old Remy Rowe's mind as he sat in fifth-grade teacher Cindy Bigbee's classroom writing computer code with CodeCombat, a platform that teaches students computer science through a game. In order to find, attack and defeat the blue ogres lurking in a stone castle, Remy noted that he has to use good punctuation and remember to capitalize letters while coding.
"It helps you learn how to code so that when you get to the real world, you can get a job to code and it won't be hard," he said of the program.
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Across the room, Garek Rhea, 10, was using the computer platform Tynker to create a quiz for his favorite class, math. Every quarter, all of the classrooms at Loess Hills Elementary School produce projects using computer coding, something Bigbee is new to teaching.
Gausman said Irving Elementary School, a dual language specialty school, is the only specialty school in the district that requires its teachers to have certification beyond the state's basic requirements. He said the district offers professional development training to specialty school teachers that focuses on their school's particular concept area.
"I've always loved an integrated technology (woven) into my teaching," said Bigbee, who said she found similarities between the coding tools used at Loess Hills Elementary School and other computer programs she has encountered in her more than 20-year teaching career. "But it's still a learning curve."
Students in kindergarten and first grade at Loess Hills Elementary School use Kodable, a coding curriculum that translates computer science into easy-to-teach lessons and games. Beeck said students drag and drop pictures. The real code, which he said students start using in fourth grade, is behind the pictures.
"That just starts with fuzzy little characters that are trying to go from this point to that. Just by teaching programming, directionality and all that, we're also teaching math. Then we tie that to reading, because you've got to be able to read those directions," Beeck explained. "It motivates even the younger kids to learn how to read, because they really love moving those little fuzzy creatures."
According to Beeck, students have yet to express boredom with coding.
"I have not had a complaint about kids saying, 'I don't want to code anymore. I don't want to program,'" he said.
When students leave Loess Hills Elementary School, they'll be able to take their coding skills a step further at West Middle School. That's something that Garek said he is excited about doing.
"I really like coding. I think it's really fun and you can learn a lot from it," he said. "I kind of want to continue doing this in middle and high school."