One school’s advice for building and bolstering innovative STEM programs


In light of the Trump administration’s recent directive to spend $200 million annually on STEM and computer science programming, districts across the country are looking to establish — and strengthen — schoolwide STEM and coding programs that aren’t too burdensome on their budgets. Beaver Country Day School can offer more than a success story; the innovative Massachusetts school can provide insights for others looking to develop a computer science-based curriculum.

Beaver Country Day School — a private institution that enrolls students grades 6-12 — says it was the first in the country to launch a “coded curriculum,” which encourages students to cultivate their computer science skills and demonstrates how coding can be incorporated into almost any subject.

Rob MacDonald, creative technologist and curricular development lead at Beaver, told EdScoop that the key to the program’s success has been finding exciting and organic ways to supplement traditional teaching practices with coding. This is the fifth school year for the coded curriculum at the shool.

Beaver uses coding in courses where the technology has an obvious application, such as physics and calculus, but teachers there also found that students can benefit from coding in seemingly unrelated subjects, like English and art.

In one literature class, for example, MacDonald said a group of students was struggling to fully comprehend the plot of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.” Seeing an opportunity to apply his computer science knowledge, one student in the class volunteered to use code to construct a visual depiction of a particular scene from the play, creating a unique learning experience for everyone in the class — including the instructor.

“We think there’s huge value in using coding as a problem-solving tool,” MacDonald said. “We think it’s important for students to understand how technology works instead of just being a consumer of technology.”

Implementing a comprehensive STEM program can seem daunting, but MacDonald wanted to reassure schools that building a coded curriculum doesn’t need to be an expensive or complicated process.

“I think people sometimes get the impression that, in order to teach computer science, you need to invest in infrastructure in a huge way,” he said. “We’ve found that there are a lot of free tools available out there.”

Beaver Country Day School doesn’t have a computer science department overseeing the school’s program. MacDonald said a department isn’t necessary. Instead, teachers are open to learning alongside students, accepting that there may be situations where students are more knowledgeable about IT than they are.

“Without a computer science department, without computer science teachers, we send the message to students that computer science and coding are high-level skills — like research and writing — that can be integrated into any discipline,” he said.

In MacDonald’s experience, investing in technology doesn’t require much more than providing students access to laptops.

Beaver Country Day School has resisted the urge to devote their resources to a single learning platform or coding language, MacDonald said, noting the wastefulness of purchasing platforms that will soon become “obsolete.”

Instead, students at Beaver have access to a variety of free online resources, like PencilCode and Khan Academy. Some of the school’s students use programs like Scratch or Python — and some use processing software — but they are always able to try new tools to better fit each task they face.

“What we’re concerned with is that our students have a broad understanding of what coding is all about, what can be done with code and learning to connect their creative skills with their analytical skills,” said MacDonald. “That mindset is going to be valuable for much longer than just experience with one particular language would be.”

One of the greatest benefits of following an innovative STEM curriculum, MacDonald said, is the effect that it has on increasing diversity in the technology field. By incorporating coding into every subject and exposing every student to computer science, students of all backgrounds will realize more career opportunities in STEM than they have in the past, leading to a better representation of women and people of color in IT.

“You really can’t roll out the same thing that’s been done in the past, because we already know what the results of that will look like,” MacDonald said. “So, if we approach computer science from a perspective that this is something every student could learn — not just some students — then that has the potential to change the outcomes dramatically.”