Published: April 13, 2016

Conventional wisdom says that kids aren’t capable of learning computer science until high school. As Scalable Game Design works to prove that wrong with middle schoolers, Ian Her Many Horses (CompSci’06) is taking it a step further in his PhD work in the CU-Boulder School of Education.

Her Many Horses believes kids can start learning CS principles in elementary school and, like Scalable Game Design, he decided to start with video games. But instead of having younger children follow a tutorial or memorize coding syntax, Her Many Horses begins by having them write out a three-sentence game description. Then, he helps them break it down into nouns and actions that could be matched with repeatable coding functions in a simple drag-and-drop tool.

He said his results show that elementary students are completely capable of learning to use computer science principles to solve problems, which he thinks could lead to a sea change in the way students prepare to enter the workforce.

“They could easily be career-ready by the time they graduate high school,” he said. “And even if they don’t go into computer science, for those who go to college to study biology or chemistry, it changes the game in how they are doing research.”

Her Many Horses’ passion for computer science education research began when he returned to his home on the Rosebud Sioux Reservation in South Dakota to teach high school after receiving his math education certification in 2007. 

“I taught math and one CS course, but I wasn’t very good at it and there wasn’t a lot of good information out there on how to improve things,” he said.

He said that he tried to replicate his college computer science education, but the pacing and order of lessons didn’t cut it for high schoolers.

“In college, it’s sink or swim – if you can’t do it, maybe you’re not cut out for it,” Her Many Horses said. “That’s not how education should be done, and not how K-12 is done.”

So he decided to return to CU-Boulder and work toward his PhD with professor Valerie Otero, making him one of the few education researchers in the country focused on computer science education.

As he prepares for his graduation in May, he’s not sure exactly what the future holds. However, it will more than likely involve expanding access to computer science in places like the Rosebud Reservation, where he believes CS can be a way for people to help solve their communities’ problems.

“Right now, computer science is accessible mainly to middle-class boys, some of whom will go on to help other communities,” Her Many Horses said. “But people can do it if they’re home-grown, too – we just need to provide better access.”