Lawmakers Look At Powell While Considering Mandatory Computer Science Classes

Feb 2, 2018

As lawmakers are discussing whether to add computer science and computational thinking to the state educational curriculum, they are looking to Powell as an example. Powell is one of only five school districts teaching computer science. Wyoming Public Radio’s Kamila Kudelska takes a deeper dive into how their curriculum has developed and persisted throughout the years.

On a recent Wednesday afternoon, a group of five teens hung around after school. They’re tinkering with a frame of wires, brackets and wheels. It’s a robot, which they custom built themselves. This is the robotics club and the students were adding final touches to their robot for an upcoming competition.

“And there’s these blocks or grids on the side of the field,” high school junior, Alan Merritt, explained the tasks the robot must complete. “And each grid can hold 12 of these foam blocks and the main objective of the game is to collect as many blocks as you can and stack them into the grid and the more blocks the more points you get.”

Merritt has taken all of the computer science classes offered at Powell High School. He was exposed to robotics at a young age.

“It's fun to figure things out and solve problems and you're always learning new things,” said Merritt.

Alan and Jenna Merritt work on their robot.
Credit Kamila Kudelska

And for the Powell school district, that’s just it. Robotics and computer science is more than just learning how to code and program. Zac Opps, the middle school computer science teacher, said it’s about the mentality, the ability, and the confidence to continually attack a problem and not give up.

“These kids are changed when they commit and come in and really work at this even if they realize, like man I hate that,” said Opps. “They will leave with skills that even if they never write another morsel of software in their life, they will use forever and the district has definitely recognized that.”

Powell High School first introduced basic computing classes in 1986. Science teacher Terry Foley was fascinated by computers and technology and had a feeling these machines were going to change the world. 

“I remember telling my students, “You know there's going to be a time when you don’t write letters on paper anymore. You'll actually write to each other using electronic mail”,” recalled Foley. “And I remember, they thought that was pretty funny.”  

And sure enough he was right. So even with some initial pushback from faculty and administrators, Foley added a number of computer-related classes throughout the years, including programming, web design and HTML classes. 

District curriculum coordinator R.J. Kost is proud of what they do.

“We have robotics, computer science, web design. We try to offer as much as we can offer with the number of students that are interested,” said Kost.  

But none of the classes are required. They’re electives. Wyoming lawmakers are considering requiring computer science as part of the statewide curriculum. But Kost isn’t sure that's the right way to go. He said adding more required classes equals less flexibility for the students.

“I think younger years, developing like we are through 3, 4, 5 [grades] with the robotics and that will help,” Kost said. “We have to get the message out more than requiring. It’s making people realize what this is about and how we can make a difference in their lives.”

Zac Opps, the middle school computer science teacher, said whether it’s required or not, he thinks exposure to computer science throughout all grades is important.  

“Requirement at the high school level isn't going to do it. They've already made their mind,” Opps said. “They'll be miserable for a semester and get over it. Maybe a few kids would unearth an interest. But they’re not going to develop a passion at 16 or 17.”

House Education Committee Chairman David Northrup agrees computer science needs to become a way of thinking. But he wants it to be required because it’s important to the states future economy. 

“You can have a job that is in New York and you can sit in your house and do it instead so maybe in Wyoming and have to fly out only two or three times,” said Representative Northrup.  

Lawmakers, the Governor, and others hope this will help diversify Wyoming’s economy and keep young people in the state. Their point seems to ring true with Powell High School Junior Alan Merritt who sees computer science or engineering in his future.  

“I really like Wyoming. It would be great if I can stay here but if I have to move somewhere else I guess I would,” said Merritt.  

But for now, he’s hoping his teams’ robot will stack the most blocks, at least enough to win state to qualify for regionals and eventually worlds.