An Innovative Journey to Scalable Computer Science Programs

In a time when technological advancements shape our daily lives and drive economic growth, focusing on STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education in K-12 schools is not just a trend but a necessity. Initiatives like the U.S. Department of Education‘s YOU Belong in STEM and the National Science Foundation’s vision for the STEM Education of the Future underscore a national commitment to equipping students with the skills and knowledge needed to thrive in a tech-centric world, ensuring equitable access to opportunities that foster innovation and sustain the economy.

As the national spotlight illuminates the critical importance of STEM education, educators are tasked with translating these overarching goals into tangible experiences for students. Recently, EdSurge spoke with Valerie Brock, senior implementation manager at New York City’s Department of Education Computer Science for All (CS4All), about her journey with STEM education.

EdSurge: What experiences laid the foundation for your role as a leader in STEM education in NYC Public Schools?

Brock: In 2017, after 10 years of teaching in NYC Public Schools, the largest school district in the country, I transitioned to an “out-of-classroom” position. I was tasked with providing reading intervention services for at-risk K-8 students. When my principal asked if I would be interested in teaching one elective period per day for the middle school population, I suggested a STEM elective since I had just taught a summer full of STEM during NYC’s annual STEM in the City programming.

Despite STEM being a relatively new terrain for me, I eagerly accepted the mission to ignite the curiosity and imagination of my students. I embraced plenty of dynamic, hands-on projects: harnessing the sun’s power with homemade solar ovens, finding the magic of coding and assembling fidget spinners.

Minecraft Education’s blocky world became the undisputed champion of engagement. Some of my coworkers taught the after-school program in the building and had already successfully integrated Minecraft into their STEM curriculum. Recognizing the students’ enthusiasm for these pixelated realms, I experimented with it in my teaching practice.

My students were captivated by the game, and together, we crafted an unforgettable classroom experience and clinched victory in the annual holiday door decoration contest with a Minecraft masterpiece! Witnessing a classroom buzzing with excitement and brimming with knowledge was an educator’s dream come true.

In 2018, my journey took a new turn as I stepped into the role of a computer science education manager, with a mission to sprinkle the seeds of meaningful computer science education across the vast educational landscape of NYC Public Schools. Since 2015, CS4All has worked diligently to ensure that all public school students in New York City learn computer science, emphasizing students who identify as girls, Black and LatinX. By 2021, 91 percent of schools in New York City offered computer science (up from 76 percent in 2019).

Then, in 2020, in the throes of a world turned upside down, where screens became windows to knowledge, we noticed a spark: Students, now with ample screen time, took to teaching themselves coding skills. Accessibility had always been the hurdle we couldn’t leap — until the pandemic handed us the key.

With newfound access to Minecraft Education for every district student through our districtwide Microsoft 365 licenses, we seized the moment to launch professional learning experiences for educators, merging the beloved gaming experience with foundational computer science skills.

New York City’s Battle of the Boroughs

What plans did you implement to scale your approach?

Our collaboration with Minecraft Education experts was pivotal in designing an all-encompassing educational odyssey. Partnering with Insight 2 Execution (i2e), highly skilled edtech consultants, connected us with nationwide experts in Minecraft Education. It was imperative to secure a facilitator who adeptly navigated Minecraft’s digital landscapes and coding language. Additionally, we stressed the importance of educators having a solid grasp of computer science basics before delving into Minecraft. Ensuring the presence of an NYC Public Schools technical expert in every session guaranteed uninterrupted learning. To fortify educators’ understanding of Minecraft, we introduced a virtual learning sequence starting with “Minecraft 101.”

Since spring 2021, our journey has been exciting as we introduce upper elementary educators to the intersection of computer science and Minecraft Education. We quickly discovered the immense value of a meticulous approach: providing educators with a detailed agenda, a form to submit questions and concerns, and pre and post-exit tickets. These resources not only guide educators through the learning process but also enable us to gather feedback for ongoing improvement and immediate support.

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NYC students preparing for a Minecraft esports competition

How have you managed to engage community support for these initiatives?

Recognizing the power of community and ongoing support, we established dedicated professional learning spaces tailored to Minecraft Education. These forums are hubs where educators can pose questions, exchange insights and glean wisdom from both their peers and seasoned experts at any hour — resources that have proved priceless.

Our dedication to enhancing computer science education continues to drive us forward, leading to participation in other Minecraft Education ventures like the city-wide Minecraft Education Battle of the Boroughs, an esports competition where students team up to build a better NYC. This affirms our pivotal position in this revolutionary approach to learning.

Minecraft Education’s Hour of Code: Generation AI

Can you elaborate on some of these endeavors’ outcomes and what you hope to see in future successes?

Our initiatives have flourished, with around 300 educators from approximately 250 NYC Public Schools becoming skilled on the Minecraft Education platform through our programs. This success has facilitated new collaborations, extending student benefits beyond initial expectations. In December 2023, we hosted our inaugural city-wide coding event, collaborating with Logics Academy, engaging students from over 400 NYC Public Schools in the Hour of Code: Generation AI event. Students explored the expansive possibilities of AI and learned about the significance of creating equitable and dependable technology. They tackled coding challenges, unraveled engaging puzzles and applied ethical AI concepts. Educators and students are still replaying the session in class as of today!

Principals from several elementary schools have reached out to me to ensure Minecraft Education is in their programming. Teachers have informed me that they are forming after-school and lunchtime coding clubs. Our city-wide Minecraft Education Battle of the Boroughs Challenge has reached new heights as well. For the first time, we received submissions from over 475 school teams, ranging from kindergarten to 12th grade students. And just recently, a teacher from Manhattan enthusiastically shared that his class of second graders is not only engrossed in Minecraft but is also learning to code.

As we look to the future of computer science education, our goal is to sustain and enhance our partnerships with external organizations, offering diverse and enriching experiences for both students and educators. We are also focused on expanding our internal offerings, encompassing professional development, instructional coaching and extensive support for teachers and school leaders. These initiatives aim to bolster the adoption and effectiveness of computer science education, beginning at the elementary level.

We eagerly anticipate leveraging Minecraft’s extensive AI-related activities to foster a comprehensive understanding of ethical AI among all students. We are excited about the advancements and innovations that await computer science education.

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