Westhall, a computer science teacher and the chapter leader at PS 31 in Bayside, Queens, brought a subject reserved for middle and high school students to children as young as 4 years old.
“By increasing exposure to computer science and STEM-related careers at an early age, I feel you empower students to consider opportunities they may not have otherwise,” said Westhall, who received a city Department of Education Big Apple Award for teaching this year. “Early exposure might close the gap for underrepresented communities in these fields.”
At first, providing that exposure would prove easier said than done.
“In the very beginning, I didn’t know where to turn,” said Westhall. “There wasn’t a lot out there for elementary school.”
The Computer Science for All program, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s initiative to provide resources for computer science education, only worked with middle schools. But Westhall was able to get the support she needed for PS 31 from the program.
“They wanted to see what computer science could look like in an elementary school, and we were there,” she said. “It’s grown exponentially since then.”
For kindergartners, Westhall begins with the basics. She starts out by teaching them computational thinking concepts. She helps the kindergartners “identify everyday algorithms that break larger tasks into smaller steps to achieve a desired outcome, such as tying your shoelaces.”
Older students learn more advanced skills like coding and web design.
But Westhall doesn’t stop there. “I want the students to view technology as a gateway to creative fields,” she said.
To inspire her students, Westhall draws from her own history. Before she was a teacher, she worked in the television industry, handling broadcast operations and managing advertisement sales for shows like “One Life to Live” and “Good Morning America.”She shows her students pictures of television studios “and all the technology they could interact with there,” as well as the technology used backstage at concert venues.
“I am trying to build excitement for them,” she said.
She credits her son as the catalyst for both her career change and her passion for technology.
Westhall left television in 1999 to stay at home with her son and taught herself HTML coding so she could earn freelance income while raising him. When she was ready to go back to work full time, teacher friends inspired her to enter the profession, at first as a 5th-grade teacher at PS 31 in 2004.
But her son kept her interest in technology alive. “He was so immersed in using tech. All he wanted to do was play games,” she said. Westhall saw how her son’s hobbies presented an educational opportunity and connected him with 3D printing and coding activities.
“He’s now in college for computer science,” she said.
In 2013, when the teacher managing PS 31’s computer lab retired, “I basically begged for that position,” she said.
Westhall has been expanding the computer science experience at her school ever since.
“We push it into the classrooms; it’s not just an isolated course,” said Westhall. “Especially in math — a lot of the computational thinking pieces are mathematics.”
Jennifer Stathes, a 5th-grade teacher at PS 31, started working with Westhall this school year. Her students are using Westhall’s tools to create online presentations and websites about the other subjects they’re learning. “They design their own websites and deliver the same type of information to a much larger audience,” Stathes said.
Westhall also created Code Ambassadors, a project in which 4th- and 5th-grade students volunteer to share what they’ve learned with other students and to help teachers integrate technology into their classrooms.
“A lot of my students are code ambassadors,” said Stathes. “They relay a lot of what they’re learning to other students — specifically younger students. They’ve also taught me a lot.”
Westhall has even begun spreading the gospel of tech beyond the walls of PS 31, bringing her code ambassadors to neighboring schools to share knowledge and learning materials.
Westhall collects old technology — like a cathode tube television and a 1980 Atari video game system — that she displays in her computer lab alongside modern innovations, including a 3D printer.
She uses these pieces to drive home a point for her students.
“Look at the timeline for how rapidly things have changed,” Westhall tells her students. “You never know what you can do. If you can dream it, you can make it. You just have to have the right tools and resources.”