Finley’s brave new mission of computing

TEACHER STEPHANIE PERRY in the Innovation Lab with students at Finley Elementary School in Westminster (Orange County Tribune photo by Jim Tortolano).

By Jim Tortolano

Here’s today’s reality check. Your 5-year-old probably knows more about computing than you do. And your fifth-grader? Forgetaboutit.

The above is true if your kids are enrolled at Finley Elementary School in Westminster. The K-5 school, part of the Westminster School District, is Orange County’s first computer science magnet school and its official ribbon-cutting ceremony was Wednesday morning.

The real news, however, is the way that the campus on Edwards Street is embracing the future with a curriculum that weaves coding and robotics and more into the school day for every subject from English to math to social studies and at all grade levels.

STUDENTS at Finley School working on a coding project involving a robot.

“This is like ‘Star Trek,’” said WSD school board trustee Jamison Power. “Boldly going where no one has gone before.” District superintendent Cynthia Paik said the approach used at Finley not only promotes computer science knowledge, but also makes “traditional subjects more engaging. We use computer science not as an end in itself, but as a catalyst to make math, English and science more fun and more stimulating and to help our students thrive in whatever path they may take.”

The impetus for Finley’s pathfinding comes from two places. It’s estimated by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics that by 2020, there will be 1.4 million jobs in the computing fields, but only 400,000 students enrolled in those classes. That gap of 1 million can be filled by teaching game design, coding, robotics and other skills not just at the college and high school level, but starting as early as transitional kindergarten.

Additionally, with enrollment falling in schools all across Orange County, the WSD – a K-8 district which serves most of Westminster as well as portions of Garden Grove, Midway City and Huntington Beach – is seeking to position itself as a “destination district” to entice parents to send their children to its schools.

If computer science seems a bit daunting to grown-ups, the programs use kid-friendly techniques to introduce aspects of the field in bite-size and entertaining ways.

In teacher Stephanie Perry’s “Innovation Lab,” which looks more like the bridge of the U.S.S. Enterprise than a traditional schoolroom, fifth-grade students are working on a coding project.

“Most of them are using block-based coding on a program called Scratch to create a game. Some of them have created a maze or a projectile game, characters, a problem and solution,” she said. “We also have some kids working on a robotics project, programming a robot to use sensors to pick up different colored blocks.”

While grown-ups may be a little intimidated about the prospect of creating a new R2D2, the kids are not. “I’ve learned the kids are experts. I’m not intimidated because they’re not, and they go for it. They’re better at it than I am,” said Perry. “I’m here to support them.”

Still no idea what’s going on in this brave new world? Relax and ask the munchkin sitting behind the iMac at Finley, or your own home. She’ll be glad to explain it to you.


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