By MJ Shoer
Developing innovative tech education curriculum is no small feat—even for an organization that is able to tap into the expertise and experience of CompTIA (the incubator of this social impact nonprofit). The team here at CompTIA Spark took to the challenge, driven by an intense desire to fill a necessary gap. We designed the “Tech Exploration” and “Emerging Tech” modules to enable middle school teachers to not only teach tech-specific skills but also help students build the confidence and durable skills they need to succeed.
The opportunity to see these tech curriculum modules in use—live, in person—really drove home the notion that we are doing the right thing and that it is important work.
I had the opportunity to visit several sixth-grade classes at the Gates Middle School in Scituate, Mass., where CompTIA Spark curriculum for middle grades is being utilized by educators. Beth Niece, the middle school's technology specialist, is an enthusiastic supporter of our tech curriculum and has done a great job introducing it to her students.
Joining me for this visit was Travis Bower, a senior curriculum development manager at CompTIA Spark. Travis is a former school administrator, with deep expertise in this space, so he brings an important lens and credibility to our work with his peer educators.
Gates Middle School was built about seven years ago and presents a clean, spacious and well-lit space for both students and educators. The day I visited, the school was buzzing with boundless energy—the kind that only students this age have. They bounced from class to class on a mid-day Friday so close to a weekend dismissal.
I had the good fortune to observe two classes using the artificial intelligence unit in the CompTIA Spark curriculum. The lesson started with a quick review, presented on a projected whiteboard at the front of the classroom. The kids then quickly jumped into the fun learning unit, which is based on a fictional pizza restaurant. They were tasked with building a chatbot for the restaurant’s website, where potential customers could interact and get their questions answered by the chatbot. The kids first designed the workflow of the chatbot and then programmed it to answer questions they specified in their workflow design.
Several things jumped out almost immediately. First was how much the students were paying attention to and truly enjoying the lessons in this unit. I was also struck by how engaged the students were, not just with each other and Ms. Niece, but also with Travis and me! They did not hesitate to raise a hand to ask questions about the technology.
But what really impressed me was how they also would ask Travis to come over so they could give him an idea or suggestion to make the unit even better. When I was in sixth grade, I don’t think I ever gave anyone a suggestion about anything, at least not in school! The students really enjoyed learning about AI and were very willing to help one another, passing computers back and forth to help their teammates complete the unit, lesson by lesson.
I was also really captivated by the imaginativeness shown by the students. From naming their restaurant to detailing how they wanted customers to interact with the chatbot, they were thinking creatively and innovatively, all while displaying a confidence that really stood out for kids their age. One student wanted to take his chatbot to an entirely new level, one not even in this module—at least not yet. He wanted customers to be able to make an interactive reservation with the chatbot by showing them the available tables and giving them a live webcam view of their selected table. The customers would then know just where the table was in the dining room and what kind of view they would have, depending on which seat they sat in. As I said, innovative and creative. The future of technology is right here at Gates Middle School!
It was truly inspiring (and a lot of fun) to see the fruits of the CompTIA Spark team’s efforts in use by these students and teachers. The time seemed to fly by as they worked individually and as teams to design their chatbots, and they were eagerly ready to move on to the next unit in the curriculum.
We had an idea with CompTIA Spark, that by getting youth in middle grades excited about technology, we would open doors to career possibilities they might not have otherwise considered. Based on my time at Gates Middle School and the feedback we receive from countless other teachers around the country, I’d say our idea is right on point! I have little doubt that this same fervor and excitement is being replicated in any of the classrooms using the CompTIA Spark curriculum—and we’re just getting started. I can’t wait to see what some of these kids go on to accomplish.
MJ Shoer is the CEO of CompTIA Spark and chief community officer at CompTIA.
Discover how CompTIA Spark curriculum can help middle school educators empower their students to thrive—today and tomorrow—in the ever-evolving digital world.