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More coding, more robots, and, now, Artificial Intelligence (AI) is in store for Toms River Regional Schools as the Office of Naval Research has picked up Year 2 of the successful TR:TechReady district coding program. In 2019-2020, the program will welcome intermediate students, like those seen here at Intermediate North.

Multidisciplinary program includes summer coding camps and yearlong activities

April 18, 2019-- One year ago, Toms River Regional Schools won the largest single competitive grant in its history. The Office of Naval Research (ONR), which promotes science and technology applications for the United States Navy and Marine Corps, awarded the district over $760k to support TR:TechReady, a computer coding initiative addressing district, industry, and naval goals. Based on its performance in year 1, program leaders were just notified of the release of $256,482 for Year 2, starting May 1.

Since last April, ONR funding helped purchase devices and materials to make coding physical, programming devices and apps at the core of robots, drones, cell phones, and household appliances. The district ran summer coding camps for 150 students and staff, and provided staff training and student field experiences and competitions during the year. It inspired new and revised high school courses with coding at their core. The ideas tested in TR:TechReady helped the district win a more focused grant from the NJ Department of Education to help meet the anticipated 2022 mandate that all students study computer science as a requirement for graduation, which also includes dual college credit and the chance to earn industry-valued credentials.

Based on presentations at regional conferences and partnerships with dozens of other districts, organizations, and government entities, TechReady has helped change the conversation around computer science across the state. First, it was built on the tenet that all students can code regardless of age, gender, ability, enthnicity, or means. Second, it promoted the idea that computer science is relevant across all content areas, bringing coding to Spanish, English, Earth Science, and other non-traditional CS subjects. Third, it targeted “coding beyond the keyboard” by applying code to physical devices and addressing real world problems. For example, students identified issues of global relevance and proposed solutions aligned with the United Nations 17 Sustainable Development Goals (www.unsdg.org).

At a time when the district is struggling over the loss of millions in state funding based on a “revised” funding formula, grants allow staff and students to explore and expand ideas when programs and services might otherwise be cut. According to Assistant Superintendent Dr. Marc Natanagara, lead writer of the original application and its revisions, “What’s unusual about this program is that it assumes coding and computational thinking can be learned by and be of benefit to everyone, not just in STEM classes, but in every content area and career.”

The research team from Year 1, which included Supervisors Tiffany Lucey and Heather Pentifallo, and teachers Phil Beachy, Christine Girtain, and Suzanne Signorelli, looked carefully at career trends, regional needs, and applications in students’ lives to develop relevant and authentic activities. One programming language is being used to decipher and analyze DNA sequences, one for peer teaching, and another to create virtual reality experiences.

In Year 2, the district plans to focus on more coding languages deemed to be important in industry. To strengthen its high school initiative, they will use some of the grant funds to establish “feeder” programs at the three intermediate schools, using successful models developed at the high schools in Year 1. The expanded program will center on the concept of artificial intelligence (AI), which will help students focus on practical implementations of STEM and coding into areas like data analysis and visualization, human-tech interfaces, machine learning, and game theory, in applications as diverse as cybersecurity, energy, climate change, and internet of things (IoT).

Between April 19 and May 12, interested students can apply to participate in one of many TechReady Summer Code Camps taking place July 15-August 1. 

Should all go as expected in Year 2, the district hopes to apply future funding to expand coding activities at the elementary level, completing the sequence of learning from algorithmic awareness in kindergarten to writing new code as a senior year project. 

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