Smart Start awards PBS Charlotte grant to fund coding workshops for Pre-K students
Smart Start of Mecklenburg County has awarded WTVI PBS Charlotte a $28,720 Innovation Initiative grant to address the needs of children 0 – 5 years old and their families in Mecklenburg County. Through the end of March, PBS Charlotte is using the money to provide free, weekly computer coding workshops to 65 children enrolled at Hidden Valley Elementary School or who reside in the Hidden Valley corridor, as well as their teachers and parents.
During the 12-week program, Toye Watson, education and outreach coordinator for PBS Charlotte, is “pushing in” to Hidden Valley Elementary School’s Pre-K classes to teach the students foundational coding concepts using the “PBS KIDS ScratchJr” app. ScratchJr utilizes introductory programming language to enable young children (up to 7 years of age) to create their own interactive stories and games featuring their favorite PBS KIDS character.
During each workshop, students further develop their STEM and critical thinking skills, building their characters within the app. To do this, they use basic math concepts to make their characters move, apply simple storytelling concepts to share how their character is interacting with its environment and more. The ScratchJr interface and programming language are developmentally appropriate for younger children and match their cognitive, persona, social and emotional development.
“The future is STEM and technology,” explains Watson. “In fact, one of the fastest moving industries is coding. Studies show that the earlier a child can code, the more likely they are to possess strong mathematical, critical thinking and foundational learning skills – all characteristics that will help them earn a sustainable career in the future.”
In addition to working with the students at the school, Watson is using outside resources, such as the Sugar Creek Library and Sugar Creek Recreation Center, to not only work with Pre-K students in the community, but also to train teachers and parents on how they can best use ScratchJr with the children. These education/training sessions serve many purposes, giving both the teachers and the parents an opportunity to share stories with one another, exchange resources and ask Watson further questions about using ScratchJr in the classroom and at home.
“This initiative convening and mobilizing the community around improving the education outcomes for children 4 to 5 years old in one of the most racially and ethnically concentrated areas of poverty in Charlotte – the Hidden Valley corridor,” explains Watson. “In 2018-2019, Hidden Valley Elementary School placed in the bottom 50 percent of all schools in North Carolina for overall test scores. My hope is that if we can start educating the children as early as possible, we can provide them with a quality education that puts them in a position of no longer starting their primary education in a deficit, but rather with an advantage.”
The grant’s monies will help Watson accomplish this goal. Funds will be used to:
- purchase Amazon Fire Tablets and WiFi hotspots, to coordinate project work and presentations on the ScratchJr coding program;
- support marketing efforts, to raise awareness of the program within the local community; and
- coordinate a ScratchJr Family Day, to give students and all of their extended family members an opportunity to work together and create a project in ScratchJr.
Throughout the 12-week program, Watson is assessing and tracking data on the effectiveness of the program and its impact on early STEM concepts and skills in the Pre-K children. Students and teachers are taking assessments, and teachers’ journals and childrens’ work samples are being collected to evaluate progress, as well as the program’s impact.
“The promise of an education is that it levels the playing field,” explains Watson. “This grant is helping education live up to its promises.”