CHAMPAIGN — One Friday in December, sixth-graders in Jessica Pitcher's science tech class at Jefferson Middle School waited, antsy, while she took attendance and made announcements.
By the time she said the word, most were heading to computer work stations to open software called EToys, which is actually an environment for computer programming.
The students opened the postcards they'd been working on all week, trying to make sure they met the class requirement for the amount of text and moving objects.
They're learning about computer programming as part of a pilot project on the subject that the Champaign school district has started with the help of partners from the community and the University of Illinois.
Franklin Middle School has already done some computer programming lessons, as well, and Edison Middle School will do so in a slightly different way closer to the end of the school year.
At Jefferson, sixth-graders Evan Reiling and Will Thomas created a Christmas tree with a railroad surrounding it. They created a train that knows how to circle the tracks by searching for a specific color.
"We have failed many times," Reiling said, trying to figure out how to make the train follow the tracks. Finally, they realized they had to alternate brown and a shade just slightly different. When the train sees the first brown color, Reiling and Thomas programmed it to move forward. When it encounters the slightly different color, it turns.
Sixth-grader Lundyn Anderson created the image of a Skittles candy bag and a rainbow, with multicolored dots as Skittles. His goal: to make the Skittles rain into a bucket he drew.
Pitcher helped him, asking him first how he wanted the Skittles to move, and then offering advice for ways to make them fall exactly the same way.
Pitcher, who is a science and technology lab teacher at Jefferson Middle School, said collaborations with the University of Illinois' Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, as well as support from the school district, have been important to the success of the computer-programming pilot program.
Students program EToys to take snippets of code and change them to make the software do what they want.
"It's a lot more problem-solving, and not getting tied up in the nitty gritty of code," Pitcher said. "They can do anything with it" once they learn what the code does and what to put in to make something else come out.
Pitcher said the students pick up on computer programming so quickly that they push her to learn more. She said they've also learned they have to research their own answers to their questions.
"They're understanding that you're going to encounter different types of software or technology where the answer might not be right in front of you," Pitcher said. "They have to use their resources to find where the answer might be."
It also encourages collaborations, because the students work in groups that use a single computer.
"We actually like the idea that it's designed to work in a collaborative group," Pitcher said, because it mimics a workplace or college setting. "You're not working in isolation, ever, in the real world. The collaboration is really the key to this whole process."
Kathleen Harness is a former Champaign teacher and now works in the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education. She develops lessons for EToys.
Harness found EToys when looking for computing programs younger students could manage.
"The software can grow up with a child," she said. "That was one of the things that persuaded me to use it. I wasn't introducing something that was a dead end or a childish construction."
EToys can be used to model physics and math formulas, she said.
"What EToys has done, it has let me step into a world into mathematics, programming, logical thinking and be creative with it," Harness said. "I believe that kind of opportunity for students is valuable."
She said she's written lesson plans that don't assume the person teaching has any technical knowledge, and are aligned with the Common Core State Standards, which are learning standards in English, reading and math that schools will have to adapt by 2014-15.
George Reese, the director of the Office for Mathematics, Science, and Technology Education, said his office has worked with a group called Illini For Kids to create the pilot program, as well. The hope is that the curriculum will eventually extend to the high school, he said.
The workforce has what Reese calls a "powerful need" for workers skilled in information technology and computers. Those are subjects not usually taught in a traditional K-12 curriculum.
Reese said the school district's willingness to try the pilot program is invaluable.
"The district support behind this effort is crucial to getting started with something that isn't automatically part of the normal curriculum," Reese said. "I can't emphasize this enough."
He said his department is looking at how students and teachers respond to the lessons, what kind of challenges they encounter and how they succeed.
The goal of that research is "so we can better help others who might want to take up this challenging effort to put computing in the K-12 classrooms," Reese said.
Other departments within the university help as well, such as professors and other experts in computer science.
"I think it's a project whose time has come," Reese said. "The resources are there; the knowledge is there. Now that the support is there. I think something very exciting is happening in the Champaign schools."