Modesto Schools Get New Building, Tech, Programs for STEM

(TNS) — Little rolling robots dodge red, green and blue blocks as fifth-graders cheered loudly, at times rising to their feet with enthusiasm.

Tuolumne School students in south Modesto worked in teams to piece together 500 or so parts to create the devices, which they would soon learn to control through coding, teacher Hector Barraza said.

The robotics unit was part of a push at Tuolumne — and Modesto City Schools more broadly — to enhance K-6 learning opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM. By exposing students to STEM at a young age, district officials hope more students will choose to take related courses in middle and high school, setting them up for in-demand careers if they choose.

Elementary students at all schools started with a new technology curriculum this year that covers Google Workspace products, computer programming and digital citizenship. The district had started upgrading elementary school technology classrooms and in early February began construction on a new building for science, technology, engineering, arts and math, or STEAM, at Tuolumne. Both use funding from bond measures passed in 2018.

“It just provides all of our students better opportunity,” Tuolumne principal Lisa Frymire said.


This school year, two Modesto City elementary schools incorporated project-based lessons from Project Lead The Way, a national nonprofit organization. Teachers from six additional schools are interested in being trained to teach the curriculum, said Tony Lomeli, a senior director of student support services.

Lomeli and Beard Elementary Principal Beth Weston were trained before the pandemic to teach the curriculum, they said. Now, 85 percent of the north Modesto school’s teachers have completed a three-day training to teach Project Lead The Way, and some have gone through a weeklong training that certifies them as lead teachers allowed to train others, Weston said. The rest of the teachers should be trained by the end of the year, she said. At Tuolumne, all teachers except four who are new to the school teach the curriculum at some point in their day, Frymire said.

Students in each grade complete units in three pathways: biomedical science, engineering and computer science. They align with state science standards in addition to some reading and writing concepts, Weston said. The units get progressively more challenging as students age, but she said all involve problem-solving, critical thinking and teamwork.

The units begin with a real-world scenario, such as how to secure a broken arm, or how to rescue a tiger from a moat. By the end, students will have worked together on solutions that apply what they’ve learned.

“It always ties back to some real-world application, which I think is important for students, especially at this young age, to see,” Weston said.

So far this year, sixth-graders at Beard said they’ve learned about the digestive system, the spread of communicable disease and coding with Scratch, which markets itself as the “world’s largest coding community for children.”

One of the students, named Knox, said it’s helpful to learn about human anatomy, how the body works and how diseases can spread. “It would be important to know, if we had a disease, if it would be communicable or not,” Knox said.

A fellow sixth-grader named Vanessa said she enjoys coding and is interested in being a game designer. A classmate named Joseph said coding is fun because he likes “being able to create my own little world.”

Joseph said he used Scratch to make a game in which a cat chases a dot. Vanessa said she coded a game that features flying cats and a fish for them to eat.

The three students said they enjoy Project Lead The Way, and especially coding, because the lessons change each day and stand out from other routine school subjects. “It’s something you’re always looking forward to,” Vanessa said.

“I think that it’s a lot more fun,” Joseph said.

Weston said Project Lead The Way opens doors that grade-schoolers usually don’t have access to. “They just absolutely enjoy learning,” she said.


Though the Project Lead The Way curriculum at Beard and Tuolumne incorporates coding, K-6 students across Modesto City Schools also are learning to code through computer science classes.

In a technology lab at Bret Harte Elementary in early February, sixth-graders dragged pieces across their screens in an online representation of what they’d do with a micro:bit, a device used to teach students to code. They could click a tab toward the top of their screens to see what their code would look like in the programming languages ​​JavaScript and Python.

The goal is to get students excited about coding at the elementary school level so they might elect to take computer science classes in later grades, said Mike Rich, senior director of curriculum/instruction and professional development.

“We want all kids to know from the beginning, this is accessible to everybody,” Rich said.

Teacher Chad King said most students enjoy coding, and some catch on especially quickly. A group of third-graders processed lessons so well that King said he started teaching them Python just because they were ready for it. King said he’s excited to see where those students are at by sixth grade.

The district upgraded 10 elementary school technology classrooms over winter break and plans to upgrade the remainder over the next two years, Rich said. Some elementary schools have more than one technology lab.

The renovations are funded through bonds D and E, which voters passed in 2018 for $131 million to repair elementary and junior high schools, according to MCS spokeswoman Krista Noonan.

In the updated classroom at Bret Harte in south Modesto, students sat in groups of four or so on blue, orange, green and gray chairs and wobble stools, sturdy enough to keep them from falling but flexible enough for them to wiggle around while they worked .

Tables that can rise into standing desks surrounded the perimeters of the room. The furniture has wheels so they can move around with ease.

Because students have their own district-issued laptops, they no longer need a static computer lab. The new spaces promote collaboration, Rich said. “They feel like this is a creative space.”

Students in transitional kindergarten through sixth grade take computer science classes for one hour per week, Rich said. The district began a new computer science curriculum for all elementary students this year, to align with new state standards, he said.

The district is partnering with the company CodeHS to craft an elementary curriculum over three years, Rich said. Younger grades work on introductory computer skills. Kindergartners, for example, practice using trackpads and logging in and out of their laptops, Rich said.

Back at Tuolumne, 5-year-olds guided a mouse through a maze on a mat, aiming to reach a cheese. Each mouse had colored arrows on top that made it move. Students wore colored bracelets on their wrists, each bead corresponding to a color of an arrow. The order of the bead colors indicated the order students needed to press the arrows to move the mouse and complete the maze.

In addition to practicing directional words, the transitional kindergartners learned basic coding vocabulary. They shouted “debug!” when they ran into a problem and referred to their “code” while working in teams.

By 2023, Frymire hopes, students will complete these kinds of activities in the school’s new STEAM building. The new space will further students’ exposure to science and technology, which Frymire said is not typical for students at Tuolumne.

“It’s going to give them some pride,” she said.

©2022 The Modesto Bee (Modesto, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.

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