What Is a Meaningful CS Unit?

Tuesday, July 28th 2020, 4:02:06 pm

By 2025, every student in NYC will receive at least one meaningful unit of computer science (CS) instruction at every grade band – K-2, 3-5, 6-8, 9-12. Computer science is accessible to all students when educators provide hands-on opportunities that connect to students’ interests. This approach to computing education is called creative computing.

Creative computing engages students with varied interests by giving them a chance to…

  • explore art, music, writing, gaming, science, design, or other interests from a new perspective.
  • build something of their own they feel compelled to share with friends and family.
  • recognize the possibilities opened up by making with others.

Meaningful creative computing experiences in each grade band help students evolve their understanding of computer science. This evolution is described by CS Perspectives which define how students study CS Practices and CS Concepts at each grade band. The NYC computer science education team uses the Blueprint Student Outcomes to evaluate if CS curriculum options will help the evolution of students’ perspectives and to develop our own curriculum. At a high level a meaningful unit takes 10-25 hours of instruction.

Creative Computing Artifacts: Activities, Labs, Projects

Computing artifacts are student creations that embrace one or more CS Concepts. These artifacts need not be made with or on computers. Computing concepts can be explored and represented with paper, pencil, paint, movement or computers. Here are some examples:

  • Developing a dance with repeating patterns of specific moves that represents a family tradition (Abstraction, Algorithms, and Data).
  • Creating visual art using a process or procedure that tells the story of personal, school, or community data (Algorithms, Data).
  • Building a user interface for an app on paper to collect initial user feedback before building it as a stand-alone app or as a website (Abstraction, Programming).

When creating artifacts students use CS Practices – Prototyping, Analyzing, and Communicating. Students may create artifacts through activities, labs, or projects in order to gain confidence with these practices. Each differs in the level of student agency and therefore in how educators must think about assessment. The Artifact Type Table describes the difference in more detail.

Artifact Type Table
TypeLengthDescriptionProcess – how students analyze, prototype, and communicate their artifactArtifact – the requirements or goals the artifact must fulfill
Activities1/2-2 daysProvide students with step-by-step guidanceSame across studentsSame across students
Labs1-2+ daysProvide students with one or more challenges or problemsDifferent across studentsSame across students
Projects3+ daysProvide students with a driving question that fuels an exploration of computing. Working in groups, students analyze, prototype, and communicate their work as if they are in the real-world.Different across studentsDifferent across students

The Structure of a Meaningful CS Unit

Meaningful CS units utilize a combination of activities, labs, or projects to achieve student outcomes that include all three CS Practices and three CS Concepts from a grade-band aligned Perspective. Generally, curricula provided by the CS education team, both units and courses, scaffold students understanding of CS Practices and Concepts with activities or labs with the goal of assessing student outcomes through labs or projects.

The reason for this approach, as we will discuss further in the next section, assessing meaningful CS units requires assessing students process and as well as the artifact. Labs and projects provide opportunities to meaningfully assess both process and artifact. Activities are best used to help students exercise their understanding of CS Practices and Concepts, as opposed to assess their understanding.

A 15 day meaningful CS unit may structure activities, labs, and projects as:

  • 3 days of intro activities
  • 2 two day labs
  • 2 days of reflection/discussion
  • 1 day of advanced activity
  • 1 day of advanced lab
  • 4 day project
  • 2 days of project presentation and discussion


Meaningful CS units based on the needs of students and a school’s vision. For example, a middle school teacher in a district 75 school adapted Code.org’s CS Discoveries curriculum so that she could level reading and writing to her students’ needs, give her students more time to develop their ideas and make time for necessary social and emotional learning. She evaluated which content should be focused on by evaluating whether her ideal scenario helped her achieve student outcomes that met the meaningful CS criteria of achieving student outcomes that include all three CS Practices and three CS concepts from a grade-band aligned Perspective.

Assessing Meaningful CS Units

In creative computing the process of creating an artifact is as important as the artifact itself. This benefits students who struggle with and excel at creating computing artifacts by providing both a chance to succeed. Students who struggle have an opportunity to reflect, discuss, and understand the concepts and practices. Students who excel at making will have an opportunity to see concepts and practices in action and learn to communicate their process.

An important component of effectively assessing for students’ processes and artifacts requires educators to understand Blueprint student outcomes. Student outcomes can guide educators in developing formative assessment and in effectively using summative assessments for process and artifact. We discuss how they were written and how they can be applied in the classroom in the Understanding Blueprint Student Outcomes resource.


The biggest challenge for the educator is establishing norms, writing questions, and using tools that assess students’ process. Curricular criteria for assessing students’ processes are driven by Blueprint student outcomes or similar frameworks or standards. Below are some methods by which educators have assessed process in their CS classrooms:

  • Rubrics that include process and artifact criteria such as “Identified, analyzed, and managed challenges during project” and “Artifact included an if statement”.
  • Rubrics developed in discussion with students to create a shared understanding of class goals and encourage self-assessment.
  • Design journals or group work logs are used to engage students in self-assessment.
  • Students assess each others work at multiple points in their process based on a shared rubric. The educator can assess students on their ability to give feedback – a process-related rubric criteria.
  • Entrance and exit tickets ask students reflect on successes, challenges, how they helped others, plans for the future.
  • Discussion as a class or in small groups are useful to assess the Communicating practice.


Student artifact assessment criteria are also driven the Blueprint student outcomes or similar frameworks or standards. The creative computing ethos also impacts how meaningful unit student artifacts are assessed in three ways detailed in the table below.

Ways to Assess Student Artifacts
Impact on Artifact AssessmentDescription
Types of artifactsStudent artifacts can take many shapes such as programs, data visualizations, physical processes, or paper prototypes.
Methods of assessmentArtifacts can be assessed by reviewing individual artifacts directly, asking students to present their artifacts to the class or to the larger community, debate their artifacts, and/or asking students to write about their artifact.
Assessment criteriaCriteria for rubrics and checklists should look for application of CS Practices and Concepts such as:The artifact includes an effective use a conditional statementThe artifact simplifies instructions by using a loopThe artifact includes a clear interface for usersA group artifact clearly indicates which group members worked on different components


  • A meaningful CS unit engages students in 10-25 hours of creative computing activities, labs, or projects that connect to students’ interests.
  • A meaningful CS unit assesses students process creating artifacts and their ability to create artifacts that meet specific requirements.
  • A meaningful CS unit assesses Student Outcomes that include all three Practices and three Concepts from a grade-level aligned Perspective.

These topics and others are discussed in more detail in the following educator resources:

Resource content by the CS4All team. Consultation by Tythe Design and Tiny Panther. Published by CS4All.