Santa Rosa’s Albert F. Biella Elementary a pioneer in launch of computer science immersion

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In a classroom at Albert F. Biella Elementary Friday morning, the computer screen of 11-year-old Athrun Yath appeared to have purple, turquoise and yellow blocks digitally arranged on top of each other — each one with a command.

“If you just put in random blocks it doesn’t work,” said Yath, a fifth-grader. “It’s like building a tower.”

Yath was coding for a choose-your-own-adventure project, and each block of code he arranged could make a computer avatar he designed — Greg the ghoul — speak, change backdrops, glide three seconds from one point of the screen to another and change costumes.

His project is part of a new computer science immersion program that starts Monday at Albert F. Biella Elementary in Santa Rosa, in partnership with Code To The Future, a national program highlighted by the Obama administration in 2016.

California joined a handful of other states when it adopted computer science standards last September, in a push to educate students to become creators in an increasingly more tech-centered digital world. Biella’s new program comes ahead of the state’s plan to implement the standards in March.

“Albert F. Biella Elementary is the starting point. Our goal is for computer science, through coding skills, to eventually be integrated into all of our schools,” said Anna-Maria Guzman, assistant superintendent of teaching and learning at Santa Rosa City Schools.

Yath is in Silas Martin’s fifth- and sixth-grade combination class at Biella. Martin said his class rolled out computer coding curriculum about six weeks ago, ahead of other classes.

“I think it’s an important skill set, even if you don’t become an engineer,” said Martin, a former Silicon Valley software engineer who attended Santa Rosa schools. “Even just to understand how your cellphone works.”

Martin said computer science is a popular subject with his students. Many of them huddled around screens on Friday, pointing out ideas, recording sounds for their projects, or finding ways to solve a bug.

“They’re so engaged with technology, it’s more natural for them,” Martin said.

Yath was looking at a projector recently and wondered what it would be like to build it part-by-part, the way he builds the adventure story by coding block-by-block. The immersion program encourages such thinking.

“Just learning how to program, it teaches you new things,” Raquel Castro, 12, a sixth-grader in Martin’s class. “People think it’s hard, but once you get used to it it’s really not.”

Christine Wedel, a fifth-grade teacher at Biella, said at first she was hesitant to add more computers to the classroom, thinking it might prove another anti-social distraction. But then she observed students work together on coding projects and solve bugs.

“They enjoy it. It’s different, and I’m learning with them,” said Wedel, who has taught at Biella for 11 years.

When a computer bug arises as they code, Wedel’s students devise problem-solving ideas for debugging and post them on the whiteboard: Go back and review the video, refresh the program, take a breath or a break, brainstorm solutions with a partner.

Block-coding, text-coding and robotics work has students collaborating often, teachers say.

“It’s really fun. It’s something new,” said Araceli Arreola, 12, a sixth- grader in Martin’s class.

Arreola is considering being a lawyer, doctor or detective. The logic skills learning in coding class are, on some level, helpful toward her goals, she said.

Over half of the school’s 354 students will participate in the computer immersion program starting Monday. Next school year, the entire school will be included, said Biella Principal Aida Diaz.

“I’m super excited. This way, we’ll truly have a well-rounded school,” Diaz said.

You can reach Staff Writer Susan Minichiello at 707-521-5216 or susan.minichiello@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @susanmini.

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