Learning code introduces students to ‘new way of thinking’

November 12, 2014 | Posted in: Early Learners, Elementary, High School, Middle Years | with 0 Comments

Students of all ages are acquiring a language that will serve them well in the future: They’re learning computer code.

Educators say learning code exposes students to more than technical skills; they’re gaining critical thinking and problem solving skills that will serve them well in any future job.

“Learning to program opens up a new way of thinking to students, which teaches them how to think logically and break down big problems into manageable tasks,” said Steve Wolfort, library media specialist in Niskayuna’s Iroquois Middle School. “These are skills that will translate into any future job, whether or not they are technology related.”

According to Code.org, computer programming jobs are growing at two times the national average. And Edudemic.com says that computer-related jobs will increase by 22 percent by the year 2020, resulting in the creating of 1.4 million jobs, mostly in computer science.

“The field of programming is enormous, and it covers many aspects of technology,” said William Eipp, Broadalbin-Perth High School math teacher. “Unless someone is able to program a device, computer, phone, etc., there is nothing for a device to do. As we continue to create new devices, robots and more, we will always need the programmer to make things work.”

Increasingly, districts are adding computer programming classes to their high school offerings as well, and teachers are incorporating coding into lessons across the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) spectrum.

“We’re trying to infuse lessons with code without deviating too far from the required standards,” said Makensie Bullinger, academic administrator for Science and Technology at Mohonasen Central School District. “The whole concept of critical thinking and logic that comes with coding is really important.”

Bullinger said the response to new high school electives introduced in Mohonasen this year has been “overwhelming.” The classes are part of a push in the district to incorporate coding across the STEM spectrum. Bullinger said STEM nights at the district’s K-2 school are well attended, with more than 100 students, and enrichment programs for students in grades 3-5 are over-enrolled.

“Students are learning mathematical relationships and all those concepts Common Core is asking our kids to be able to do,” said Bullinger. “It provides an opportunity, in a fun way, for students to be able to look at problems, solve them and think in an abstract way. They’re learning math without realizing it. They’re deducting, counting, using loops and algorithms. All of that is embedded in coding.”

In Niskayuna, Wolfort introduced his middle school students to Hour of Code activities during Computer Science Education Week last year, scheduled this year for Dec. 8-14.

“The Hour of Code is designed to engage students at all levels and abilities,” said Wolfort, who plans to host activities again this year. Students learn the fundamentals of programming with simple drag-and-drop code instructions that help them build popular games such as Angry Birds or Plants vs. Zombies. “The students have a blast creating their own versions of these games while they are learning to code.”

Teacher Geoffrey Swits developed a skills program for fourth graders at Duanesburg Elementary School last year, and then held several camps this past summer at the local community center. This year the program expanded when Swits formed a fifth grade robotics competition team.

“The program we use is graphics based, so they’re taking icons and making a chain of events that come along,” said Swits. “They start with a really simple program as an introduction to coding.”

Swits said students learn important skills through the robotics program. “They’re predicting and hypothesizing. They’re putting it into a real-world situation. There’s a problem, and they’re working together to find a solution.”

Younger students understand and believe they can expand their skills in the future, he said. “Exposing students earlier to these types of skills will lead the way to them understanding what goes into more complicated programming for writing computer language. If you start this in elementary school, it’s much more likely a student won’t be intimidated when they see an engineering program in high school.”

One of the greatest benefits Swits has seen is the confidence it builds in students. “It becomes second nature to discuss something then figure out what went right and what went wrong, and what they need to do to change things.”

There’s little doubt the skills students learn will aid them whatever their career path.

“There’s a lot of logic that is involved in coding,” said Bullinger. “You’re taking a problem that’s not just cut-and-paste, or rote memorization. You’re problem solving, you’re critical thinking, you are taking information and utilizing it to think outside the box, and using that to come up with answers. It’s really important to have those skills in today’s job market. If you’re given a problem and the answer’s not right in front of you, you have the skills set needed to solve it.”

Wolfort said he plans to participate in Hour of Code again this year. “My hope is that it gives students a better understanding about how so much of the world around them actually works. Learning to program gives anybody the ability to create something amazing out of virtually nothing, and understanding that opportunity is what I hope kids take away from this.”

WAYS TO SUPPORT LEARNING

  • “Learning to program is similar to learning mathematics in that it is a building block process,” said Eipp. “You need to learn a fundamental process and then build on that.”
  • Educators suggest the following resources for parents to support their children at home:
  • Code.org has age-appropriate K-12 resources.
  • Learn to code for free at Codeacademy.com
  • Another website that offers online courses for kids is Tynker.com
  • More on the Hour of Code
  • Read some interesting statistics at Edudemic.com
  • Swits also suggested parents go back to basics with circuit board kits, simple machine sets or a set of magnets. “Toys become tools, and when they see it in school, they’re not intimidated.”

Karen Nerney has been a communications specialist with the Capital Region BOCES Communications Service since 2011. She is mom to two daughters, 19 and 17, and a son, 10, who are just starting to dabble in the world of coding.

Copyright ©2015 by Parent Today and Capital Region BOCES; Used with permission

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