Technology and coding in schools
DOUGLAS COUNTY— You may have heard about it or you may be seeing it yourself in your Douglas County school. For the last few years there has been a global emphasis on students learning how to code.
Many parents, though, do not understand what this means, or they are unsure how this translates to students who are as young as kindergartners. Does this mean that five year-olds are are now expected to communicate in ones and zeroes, or that they are expected to design the next Pokemon Go app?
This week is National Computer Science Education Week and schools around the world, including some schools in Douglas County School District, are participating in an event called Hour of Code.
Now in its fourth year, the global event now engages ten percent of the world’s student population. A nonprofit initiative, Hour of Code’s vision is that every student in every school should have the opportunity to learn computer science, just like biology, chemistry or algebra.
While Prairie Crossing Elementary technology teacher, Debbie Blair, has been engaging students in Hour of Code for the last three years, this week was the first time that she has held an evening event for parents to get involved. In several stations in the main hallway and in the learning commons were plastic toy-like bee and spaceship robots, sitting upon mats with a path drawn out for these robots to follow. Children and their parents enthusiastically dove into the task— programming them to move a specific distance and direction to follow the path using Google Chrome notebooks.
“When we had parent teacher conferences, Ms. Blair had some different robots and pieces of our technology out on display so parents of kids of different ages could see what they have to look forward to and everything we have available here,” said Prairie Crossing principal, Carrie Rotherham. “After that first parent teacher conference, parents were amazed at what they didn’t know, that these electronics were not just for fun but how educational these tools are and how much students learn behind just playing with a robot. They were actually building them, they were actually figuring out how to code different mechanisms to work in different ways. They think a lot about how this process works, and that can benefit them in ways beyond technology.”
Prairie Crossing first-grader, Brendan Gentry, was enthusiastically trying out several different stations at the Hour of Code event. His mother, Serena Hendon, said that he loves gaming and computers, and sees the educational benefit behind learning coding and programming.
“Compared to our generation, the computer is so ingrained in today’s society, it’s just something that they really need to know,” Hendon said. “It has its basis in mathematics and relates to almost anything you can think of— logical thinking and creativity. There are a lot of positivities about it.”
Blair thinks the event has opened some parents’ eyes to what coding really is.
“This is part of why I wanted to do this event; I wanted kids to be able to show off what they know. It’s a great way for parents to see first hand what this looks like for students, the beginning steps,” she said.
Blair, Rotherham and several parents additionally saw the benefit of providing this kind of exposure to girls to dispel the stigma that coding, programming and computer science is just for boys.
“I wanted to get her more involved. I work with a bunch of programmers. Girls are generally not as into this kind of stuff, so I wanted to give her some exposure to it,” commented Prairie Crossing father, Jonathan Kang.
“Even something as simple as Minecraft, you would think it’s a boy’s type of game; but that actually expands over both genders,” Rotherham said. “For all of our students, it’s just a way of life for them now. They want to know more, they want to know how they can expand their knowledge.”
Ultimately, for Blair, learning how to code is about kids developing problem solving skills to prepare them for their futures.
“The reality is we don’t even know what jobs are going to be needed when these students are looking for jobs. So I think it’s really important that they don’t learn a tool but that they learn a skill. Even more importantly, that they’re willing to try,” Blair said. “Problem solving is huge with coding and robotics. This will lay the foundation for what they’re going to need.”
Tina Granato, who is the technology integration specialist at Highlands Ranch-based Cougar Run Elementary, is now in her third year of holding a large-scale Hour of Code event at the school for students and parents. Approximately 300 people attended this week’s event, which was kicked off by presentations by Corey Brooker, Orion Launch Vehicle Lead for Lockheed Martin and Yvonne Gray, a former NASA programmer and current programming and engineering executive consultant
Granato sees a huge need for computer programming in the future, and emphasized this to student and parents.
“Computers are changing everything, but what’s happening is schools aren’t keeping up with training enough people in computer science to keep up with the need,” she said. “The number one source of jobs and income in the United States is in computer science, and it’s growing at twice the rate of other industries.”
Granato, who has worked for 20 years in technology and software engineering, also sees the skill building power behind Hour of Code. To encourage the Cougar Run kids, she admitted it’s not coding within itself that she loves about computer science but the problem solving and analysis.
“I’ve had an amazing career without loving coding. Can I code? Yes, and I do. But what I love is the logic. There are many jobs in computer science that involve computational thinking," she said.
Families broke into several classrooms to begin coding activities on laptops and Chromebooks based on Minecraft and the new Disney film, Moana. On both, students had the opportunity to design and program several aspects of the games. Cougar Run mother Kemi Ajayi, who is a programmer herself, wasn’t sure at first how the coding event would translate for her daughter.
“I didn’t know what to expect and I was wondering how this would work for them. Now that I see what it is, it’s pretty cool. It’s something fun for them to do and it benefits their learning,” she commented. “This knowledge has been so beneficial for me, you can almost do anything with this knowledge. You don’t have to be a programmer. If you want to be an accountant, for example, the skills you gain are applicable there too.”
Unique at Cougar Run, a team of 19 students were staffed in each breakout classroom to assist other students and their parents with the activities. These students are part of Cougar Run’s Tech Team. New this year, the Tech Team members serve as student leaders and ambassadors in their classrooms to provide help and support to other students when working on projects or activities in which technology is integrated.
Granato explained, “there are so many things to teach our students and so much to do, and there’s just not enough time to do everything in our regular technology rotation. So our strategy was to pick the kids who were most interested in coding and train them to be experts, then they can teach the other kids and younger kids in the school and spread their knowledge even further, even if it’s not during a tech time. It has paid off so much. Kids know who the leaders are and who to go to for what. It’s making the whole school better by having a tech team.”
Cougar Run fifth grader, Gabe Flexter, applied to be part of the tech team at the end of the school year last year. His interest in programming came from Granato and her initiatives at the school. He has participated in Hour of Code every year, and this year he was efficiently working with families, one after another, for the entire hour, helping them troubleshoot whatever roadblocks they encountered.
“I like showing and coaching people how they can do stuff, and helping people problem solve if they’re stuck,” he said. “I like showing someone how they can do it, and I like to see how they enjoy their success.”
When it comes to robotics, he also loves getting to work hard on something and see his work materialize immediately.
“With the robotics, you can program them to do something, like code them to drive through our library, and then see them do it in real life. It’s pretty cool,” he said.
While Flexter isn’t necessarily planning on going into a computer science field himself— his primary passion is golf— he sees the benefit and importance for kids to learn coding on a large scale.
“In the future you can get a job and good money with this knowledge, and program some important things in this world,” he said.