Squeals of delight emanated from students in kindergarten through fifth grade at my public elementary school. They were working in collaborative teams, challenging themselves to move characters through mazes, while also learning basic computer programming. They joined over 20 million others in the worldwide initiative (December 8–14), organized primarily by Code.org.
Code.org is so committed to the importance of teaching children computer science that the organization offers incentives to teachers willing to give their students an “Hour of Code.” Prizes vary from 10 GB of Dropbox space to celebrity video chats. One lucky school in every state plus Washington, DC, is chosen to win $10,000 worth of technology hardware and accessories. My Vermont elementary school was one of them. Having just received my check, I’m in the planning stage of deciding how to best use the funds to to inspire my students with tech tools.
In the meantime, 2014 was our second year of whole-school participation in the national event, which runs concurrently with Computer Science Education Week. The timing was chosen to coincide with the birthdays of two key figures in computer science—Ada Lovelace and Grace Hopper. Lovelace lived in the mid-1800s and is thought to be the founder of scientific computing. She came up with the idea of a machine that could manipulate symbols in accordance with rules. Hopper was a computer scientist and U.S. Navy rear admiral. During the 1940s and 1950s, she created the programming language COBOL (Common Business Oriented Language). She also coined the term “debugging,” which is said to have been inspired by an actual moth removed from a computer.
To start learning to code, unplug
Several student programs were in need of “debugging” in our “unplugged” activities the week prior to the Hour of Code. For K–3 students, I adapted a graph paper programming lesson that I found in the Code.org’s curriculum. I wanted teams of students to actually be able to work as programmers while their “robots,” played by fellow students, moved through a grid on the floor.
I created the grid with two clear plastic shower curtains and some duct tape purchased from my local department store. I connected the two shower curtains and used the duct tape to design a grid on them. Then I added assorted images to some squares in the grid to act as final destinations for student programs. After some instruction on using symbols—in this case, arrows—to replace words in their directions, student programmers had an exciting learning experience moving their robot teammates through the grid to their desired location. With this programming practice behind them, students were ready for their computer-based Hour of Code.
Code.org organized the first Hour of Code campaign in 2013. According to Hadi Partovi, Code.org’s co-founder and CEO, “The Code.org vision is for every student in every school to have the opportunity to learn computer science,” he writes on the Code.org website. “It is a fundamental American ideal—and an ideal people worldwide aspire to—that access to education and opportunity should be equal for all. It seems un-American to accept that computer science classes are only available to the privileged few, in only 10 percent of schools. That is the problem we’re trying to solve.”
Over 78 million people have tried an Hour of Code. Anyone may access the Code.org website at any time, since all of the free tutorials are available year-round. Over 70,000 classrooms from across the globe signed up to participate in this year’s celebration.
Because it’s a worldwide phenomenon, the website has been translated into 35 different languages. My students loved the game-like, self-directed tutorials that include video tips from notables such as Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and personalities including basketball player Chris Bosh and actor Ashton Kutcher. The beauty of the site is that the emphasis is on fun and enjoyment. The simple drag-and-drop language is easy for learners of all ages, even my parent volunteers. My students naturally collaborated and engaged with others as they pair-programmed. It was interesting to watch how they worked through puzzles logically, testing out various strategies to achieve a successful program.
Angry Birds, Ice Age, and Frozen
Twenty different tutorials are offered on the Code.org site, making it available for all ages, from non-readers through high school programmers. Tynker, Scratch, Kodable, Lightbot, Khan Acadamy, Codecademy, and CodeHS are all freely available to help remove the veil of mystery about computer science. A favorite site at my school was Code.org’s Angry Birds. Even though most students had experienced many of these puzzles in last year’s Hour of Code, they were pleasantly surprised by the addition of problems featuring the squirrel from the movie Ice Age. Several of my fourth and fifth grade students tackled another new set of puzzles featuring movie characters, Code with Ana and Elsa, which had ice skating characters drawn from Frozen. This set of activities was recommended for ages nine and above, since measurement was done using pixels, and angles needed to be determined in order to create beautiful snowflakes on ice.
Since my students enjoyed their Hour of Code so much, I’ve signed the six classes of fourth and fifth graders in Code Studio, a fabulous K–5 curriculum I’d learned about at a free, daylong professional development workshop offered by Code.org. The curriculum offers three courses that each consist of 20 lessons. There also are “unplugged” activities that require no computer at all, yet help to teach some basic programming principles. They are mixed with self-guided and self-paced tutorials that may be implemented as the teacher chooses. In Code Studio, students have their own logins, so progress may be saved and tracked.
The Hour of Code has been a huge success at my school. My students have taken steps to becoming literate citizens in today’s digital world.
Donna Macdonald is the teacher librarian and technology integrationist at Orchard School in South Burlington, Vermont. Donna is also the president of ISTE’s Librarians Network.You may follow Donna on Twitter at @dsmacdonald or Orchard School at @OrchardVT.