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Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Hour of Code: Schools block out time each day to learn the language of computers

Students played a life-size game of Angry Birds in the Southern Elementary School gym as part of the week-long instruction in computer coding. The Angry Birds game, complete with human slingshots aiming at balloon pigs, is all about following directions to achieve a goal which is important when learning to write computer code. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Students played a life-size game of Angry Birds in the Southern Elementary School gym as part of the week-long instruction in computer coding. The Angry Birds game, complete with human slingshots aiming at balloon pigs, is all about following directions to achieve a goal which is important when learning to write computer code. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

 
By Tammy L. Lane
Special to KyForward
 
Because today’s students of every age need to know how computers work, the weeklong Hour of Code initiative blocks out time to explain the basics through online tutorials and classroom activities.
 
“Coding is the language of computers, and it’s the thinking skills that are involved. It’s hard to describe or define,” said Leanna Prater, a district-level technology resource teacher.
 
“Think about how much you use a computer to type a document, access information on the Web, message a friend through your phone or play Candy Crush on your iPad. Someone somewhere had to have an understanding of coding to make all of those tasks easy for us to do,” she blogged recently. “We are consumers of products that involve coding, but how much do we really know and understand about it?”
 
Hour of Code is an international effort coordinated by the nonprofit code.org. Awesome Inc., a local incubator for high-tech entrepreneurs, is sending about 10 volunteers into several Lexington schools to lend a hand. At the STEAM Academy, they spread out Monday, Dec. 9, among five classrooms to work with all the freshmen, who make up this year’s entire enrollment in the new Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math program.
 

At the STEAM Academy, volunteers from Awesome Inc. answered questions if students got stuck on the online tutorials and offered encouragement as they practiced coding. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

At the STEAM Academy, volunteers from Awesome Inc. answered questions if students got stuck on the online tutorials and offered encouragement as they practiced coding. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Nick Such and Brian Raney, two of Awesome Inc.’s co-founders, shared how they picked up an interest in coding at a young age, studied it through college and put it to use in startup companies. “I found out pretty early that this valuable skill is something people would pay me to do,” Raney told the STEAM students via webcam.
 
Volunteers also planned to visit Tates Creek High, Eastside Technical Center, Dixie Magnet Elementary and The Learning Center at Linlee throughout the week. Along with assisting on the self-guided tutorials, they could guide unplugged exercises such as students directing a blindfolded human robot through a maze with verbal commands or puzzling out pencil-and-paper pseudo code using logic, such as “If someone is under 18, then they cannot vote.”
 
“It’s more focused on getting people to think like programmers and introducing what that thought process looks like,” Raney said. “The main thing we want to do is raise awareness as far as what students can accomplish with coding skills.”
 
The impetus is to meet the demand in the 21st century job market.
 
“If you go back a few hundred years when people were just starting to read and write on paper, those people had a huge advantage. It’s almost the same thing now with computer programming,” Raney said. “The way humans communicate with computers is through coding and programming those computers. It’s a really valuable thing and a powerful thing that creates a lot of opportunities for people.”
 

   Teachers helped the fifth-graders line up their shots in the day's first session. Every grade level rotated through the gym during the day-long kickoff to Hour of Code week. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

Teachers helped the fifth-graders line up their shots in the day’s first session. Every grade level rotated through the gym during the day-long kickoff to Hour of Code week. (Photo by Tammy L. Lane)

At Southern Elementary, STEM lab teacher Brittany Haehlen agreed. “Computers are not going anywhere, and coding is a huge career opportunity,” she told her students.
 
Southern is among the nearly 20 schools in Fayette County Public Schools participating in Hour of Code, and Haehlen has set aside her planning period each day so youngsters can practice their skills. Mostly, they’re working independently in the computer lab using the Angry Birds drag-and-drop tutorial. “It teaches you how to think – you have to work out every single move,” she noted.
 
Last Friday, Dec. 6, the children played a life-size game of Angry Birds in the gym – complete with human slingshots aiming at balloon pigs. The connection to coding was the idea of following directions to achieve a goal. Some students (and teachers) also dressed up as their favorite tech game characters to celebrate Southern’s $10,000 prize from code.org, which Haehlen plans to use for laptops. Every school that signed up for Hour of Code was eligible, and one winner was drawn from each state.
 
“Everywhere you see computers, and all those things are run by coding,” Haehlen said. “In elementary school, you plant the seed to make them start thinking.”
 
Tammy L. Lane is a media and communications specialist with Fayette County Public Schools.

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