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Benjamin Hurley 

EdTech Coach

Washington County Public Schools



How did you get into this area?

Computational Thinking is a skill that is crucial for students to be able to succeed across multiple areas of learning. Dr. Sam Patterson writes in his text, Programming in the Primary Grades, “Programming is a vehicle teachers can use to help students develop a more complete understanding of any subject.” He goes on to say, “programming slows them down enough to enforce procedural thinking,” and this becomes important as we need to teach young learners the importance of paying attention to the details of how things work. Learners will find this in reading for meaning, writing out a draft to a story, breaking down the steps of a math problem, or investigating a hypothesis in a scientific investigation. The earlier we start with activities in logical and procedural thinking, the better the foundation we are building.


Computer Science has always been an interest of mine from a young age. I was fortunate enough to have a family that started me on that path with a TI-99/4a and playing games. I was a kid who was always interested in how things worked and would take my toys apart to see the workings on the inside and gain a better understanding. Of course, the problem of getting it back together was quite perplexing at the time! When I entered the 5th grade in 1988, one thing that stood out was that my teacher had an Apple IIe in our classroom. I loved that computer and my teacher knew it. I was a struggling student, but she sent home copies of programs from the school that I could use at home to help me practice and study. On a rare “computer day,” we would go to the Apple IIe lab and play math games like QuickFlash, Number Munchers, Oregon Trail, and one called LOGO. Being able to write commands on the keyboard to tell the “turtle” what to draw was an instant draw to me. Our first computer at home was an Apple IIGS which my family got that Christmas. In my middle school years, a friend of mine introduced me to coding in the BASIC programming language. I would ride my bike to the library and always check out the small offering of books on how to program in BASIC. I signed up and took classes at the local community college. My friend and I began to program simple text-based adventure games with dreams of “making it big one day”. The idea of being able to make the computer show and do things that I wanted it to do was quite fascinating to me. This hobby continued throughout high school as our school offered one Data Processing class in which the teacher taught us a variety of languages. As I began to look post-high school, I decided that maybe a career in programming would be my thing. Having these experiences opened up opportunities that I never would have known were out there. As I began in my teaching career, I knew that I needed to make sure my students had those same opportunities available to them in whatever way I could. However, teaching was not something I thought of at the time; I was focused on programming. I was about to learn how not to teach programming.


I enrolled at Frostburg State University as a computer science major. There were two professors who taught the programming classes that used C++; I had the same professor for both of those classes. This professor was very knowledgeable in the content, but did not provide application to what we were doing. Two years into my Computer Science program, programming became more and more difficult. In the mid-90’s, no one was sporting a tablet or laptop at classes; classes centered around lectures and we would take notes on paper. In my third year I decided that, while I really enjoyed programming, this was not the way I was going to learn it. During that time, I had also gotten involved with some of the educational studies programs because I found the joy in connecting and teaching others. I decided to take two web development classes and a computer applications in education class. I saw some potential there and eventualy moved to Early Childhood/Elementary Education and earned a Masters of Education in Curriculum and Instruction, with a focus on Instructional Technology. Computers and Technology were still very much an interest, so I began looking for emerging technology tools to engage students in their learning.


My first teaching job in 2003 was teaching Technology Education at Springfield Middle School, piloting the Gateway to Technology program. I then moved to teaching 4th and then 5th grade at Pangborn Elementary for the next 10 years. During that time as a classroom teacher, I continued to incorporate emerging technologies into my lessons with web-page development as a student portfolio journal, Podcasting and iMovie in ELA, Stop Motion and Time Lapse video in science, and apps like Sketchup and utilizing the Nintendo Wii in math, and computational thinking activities with Lego as learning centers. Fast forward to 2013, I got an email about the new Hour of Code initiative with Angry Birds. I decided to let a few of my students play with it and they were hooked! Jane Krauss and Kiki Prottsman write in Computational Thinking and Coding for Every Student, “When a child hears that this a challenge that no one has ever solved, their common reaction is self-doubt. The real magic of CS is the ability to consistently present problems that have never been solved and allow students the experience of being the very first to do so in their own unique way.” I began to see a spark that I remembered from my own childhood. Watching them build confidence as they solved problems was exciting! The next year, we started Hour of Code in December with my classroom and it was a hit with the students and myself. Over the next 2 years, I realized the potential of programming and the thinking processes behind it. I saw the connections with math as they debugged errors in their mathematical thinking. I saw how students going through the scientific process were following algorithms. In 2015, I focused our math lessons in geometry and measurement utilizing our new Sphero 2.0 robots and activities as we learned about the 8 mathematical thinking practices. Administration began to take notice of the level of engagement with my students. With that support, my principal and I, along with content supervisors and the superintendent, began discussions of a Computer Science and STEM class position within our school. Word got around and our associate superintendent stopped in for a visit and commended me on the engagement of content and ties to the curriculum. Over the course of that year, we brainstormed if had enough content to fill a full year of classes, and how a computer science and STEM position might look. In the end, I was offered an opportunity many teachers would dream of and I never thought I would have, the freedom to develop and teach what I wanted in Computer Science. I moved into an Intervention Teacher position with a full class load and within the encore schedule rotation. Students would go to PE, Art, Music, Media, and then Computer Science/STEM with me. Over the course of the next 5 years, students received a full year of computer science instruction as a content course. I used as a base curriculum, then built off of that with additional lessons and activities that reinforced what we were learning. We used different robot tools such as Sphero, Ozobot, Bee-Bots, Osmo, Lego EV3, and WeDo. Donors Choose became a platform for me in writing small grant opportunities to acquire tools - Spheros, Lego WeDo, and Osmo Coding among other tools. I also received the Washington County Education Foundation grant twice for providing more computer science opportunities to our students to obtain Ozobots and Turing Tumbles. And we used many unplugged thinking activities for our youngest learners and game centers with Lego, TinkerToys, K’Nex, Botley robots. We also did work with stop-motion animation and a variety of other apps. Thinking back to my own experiences, I remembered that little green “turtle” that I was able to move across the screen with FD 50 and I saw myself in these students as they moved the bird or the zombie or the lego robot. As educators, we need to push for what is best for our students. In college, I struggled to connect the code syntax that I was writing in my notebook to the end result. We need to be able to make their learning connect with them. My 5th grade teacher saw something in me when she wrote in our 5th grade class yearbook, “Old Benjy loved the computer!” I have found that Computer Science is a way for some students to creatively express themselves when they didn’t think they had a way. As educators, we need to give our students experiences and a voice in a world they haven’t seen yet. 35 years ago, my own career focus did not exist. You never know where our students may end up. We have to be an advocate for what is best for them and we need to advocate for ourselves and do what is best for students.


Over recent years, the county I now work in has really grown in its computer science and computational thinking offerings thanks to a lot of very supportive people. In March 2021, because of my work I was invited to join the MCCE Elementary CS Ambassadors program and continue to be an advocate and lead initiatives in our county and within our state. Washington County has grown, and we can proudly say that 100% of our students today have an opportunity to participate in computer science experiences. There has always been a struggle with time and how we fit “another thing” into our already packed schedules. As teachers, we need to continue to innovate and reimagine how we are teaching students. Using computer science thinking practices and concepts within the content areas is a natural fit. With the various schedules that schools within a district have, it is difficult to create consistency across the board. It is important to utilize the expertise that we have in our teacher leaders who are getting creative to bring CS where it is hardest to reach. It is also important to continue to provide a variety of resources and offerings, always putting the focus on what is best for students. Students are growing up in an always changing digital world; we cannot stagnate in our school offerings. It is important to meet them where they are and provide engaging experiences across all academic disciplines, whether this be providing computer science instruction independently, or providing experiences throughout the disciplines. And we are continuing to do that in Washington County, where we are now exploring and developing computer science programs for within our schools.


I am thankful for the opportunities and the people who supported Computer Science in my student days, and now, many years later, I am thankful for the people who support it in my career. I always think back and wonder if I had had the variety of experiences that kids do today in my early childhood and elementary years, where would I be today? Would I be in this same position? Or would I have gone a different career path? We continue to hear that we are preparing students for careers that do not yet exist, including mine, and as many times as I hear that over the years, it really remains true. As educators, we have to stay on the cutting edge. Computer science and computational thinking can be that hook. I agree with Linda Liukas from Rails Girls Coding Community who has said, “I don’t think everyone will be a coder, but the ability to speak and structure your thinking in a way a computer understand it will be one of the core future skills whatever your field.” So, regardless of where our students will go, we need to continue to build a full foundation and as educators we need to continue to go ST PD FD 100.

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Dianne O'Grady-Cunniff, dogrady at usmd dot edu
Director, Maryland Center for Computing Education

Dr. Megean Garvin, mgarvin at usmd dot edu
Director of Research, Maryland Center for Computing Education

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Maryland Center for Computing Education
3300 Metzerott Rd. Adelphi, MD 20783
MCCE received initial support from the National Science Foundation, (MSP)2 Grant No. 0831970.