HTC youngsters taking on computer coding

From left to right Megan Holtkamp, Brooklyn Todd, Kat DiPrima, and Lucy Steffensmeier work their way through some MineCraft coding as part of HTC Elementary's Hour of Code on Friday morning. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC.

BY CHUCK VANDENBERG
PCC EDITOR

WEST POINT – Boy…are times a changin’.

A visit to Allison Arevalo’s advanced student class shows that the days of the classroom rows and library tables have been changed over to pod learning, bean bag chairs, a relaxed environment where 2nd and 3rd graders were sitting and sometimes lying around – programming computer games.

When times tables, and verbs and adjectives, were the curriculum of the day, now students get to participate in coding sessions like Friday’s Hour of Code at the Holy Trinity Elementary School’s library as part of Computer Science Education week.

Arevalo, along with fellow instructor Corey Hamilton, were helping students navigate a basic coding program from the website www.codes.org, where the students can do simulated coding for the popular computer game.

“We’re introducing these kids to computer science,” Arevalo said. “We do different things with different grades and this age group is working with Codes.org which is really fun and addicting if you ever start trying it out.”

She said the Codes organization is advocating to have coding be part of graduation requirements because almost everything is done with computers now.

The young students were using what Arevalo called blocks-based coding. The coding application is a tutorial that allows the students to determine the path the game takes by moving blocks into places and then seeing their code result in an action.

While some students like Lucy Steffensmeier, a third grader who was working on the Minecraft tutorial, said this is their first experience with that application, most had been exposed to some type of computer sciences since kindergarten.

“You have to get this one person to the correct object,” she said as she swipes at the screen of her iPad. Steffensmeier’s screen appeared to freeze up as she swiped and swiped quickly across a screen that didn’t seem to want to go as fast as she wanted.

“Ok, so right here it says I’m supposed to build a bridge. So you come over here and you pick up from here and then put it all together over here,” Steffensmeier explained.

Then she encounters a problem where the block won’t go to the right place so she backs the screen up and starts over with a different block.

“So now it went back so I’m probably not going to build this bridge anymore. This is like a different adventure so, umm, you just try to reach this sheep,” she said working through the screens.

Steffensmeier says she wants to be a veterinarian but she enjoys working with the computer and thinks that veterinarians could use computers, too, when she gets a job.

Other students also encountered problems in the programming of the game, but each one went back and started over or backed the program up to take a different course of action.

“This is stupid,” said Kat DiPrima who got stuck on a screen. DiPrima was sitting in a group with Steffensmeier, Megan Holtkamp, and Brooklyn Todd.

When asked how she was going to get out of “being stuck” she said she could go back and pick a different model.

“I got stuck at a park, where this dude was supposed to destroy the block, it just turned and didn’t do it, so I’m going to find something else now,” DiPrima said.

Arevalo said the students get exposure to beginning coding that involves sequencing and problem solving which is a main skill being developed as they work at creating action on the game.

“They are just trying things out,” she said. “They’ll write the program and if it won’t work they’ll go back and fix it or try something else, so there’s problem solving and critical thinking as well. We know some of them will never do anything with computer science, but it still has their select skills that are important.”

She said the process of coding and programming is being started as early as kindergarten but in some cases even preschool children have been exposed to tiny robots with push button guidance.

She said she holds Hour of Code at all levels K-12 and different grades obviously get different levels and programming material. She said high schoolers worked Skype with an artist who doesn’t do programming but does work with video game programmers on video games.

The school administrators are also fully behind the program, providing all students in K-8th grade with iPads that are encased in heavy plastic protectors complete with carrying handles. The upper level students all have MacBooks.

At the high school we do Hour of Code but we do something different,” Arevalo said. “This year we Skyped with an artist that creates characters in video games. He wasn’t a programmer but he worked with them. So we try to do something different with the grade levels.

“You did a really nice job for your Hour of Code. You can continue programming with your parents’ permission at home. If you have free time or if a teacher asks what you’d like to do with spare time you could ask your teacher if you could go to Code.org and do some programming,” she told the class in a wrap up before the session ended.

Hamilton told the group he and Arevalo will talk to teachers about putting some of the apps on the iPads to help keep continuing the coding, but he reminded the students they still have other learning to do as well.

“We will maybe talk with your teachers and put a few apps on there, but this is learning and you have other learning to do as well, so don’t forget that,” Hamilton said.

“I know this is fun and exciting and you are using this skill and when you grow up you may think you want to do something like programming, but you may also want to become a nurse or a mechanic. I tell the older kids you can be a nurse or a mechanic or a carpenter or a pilot, but I’d also like you to learn how to code.”

Megan Holtkamp, a third-grader at HTC elementary follows on-screen instructions to coding for the MineCraft game on Friday during Hour of Code. Photo by Chuck Vandenberg/PCC.

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