Going beyond the 'hour' of code | April 17, 2015 | Mountain View Voice | Mountain View Online |

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News - April 17, 2015

Going beyond the 'hour' of code

Local educators explore new ways to teach computer programming to kids

by Kevin Forestieri

Teaching computer science and coding to young kids is a fresh and relatively unexplored frontier in public education that's experiencing an explosion of interest. The recent push to get more STEM fields into the classroom has millions participating in the annual "hour of code" event, and schools and local education companies are working to take it to the next level.

Late last year, kids from elementary to high school took an hour out of their day to get a cursory look at what it's like to take on coding. Using Blockly, a block-based program that represents sections of codes as "pieces" that can be put in various orders, kids were able to guide their favorite Disney characters through a series of movements to reach a goal.

The games mimic how real code directs a computer to do tasks, and just like real code, kids can run into pitfalls and problems, and have to "debug" and figure out what went wrong.

During a "fireside chat" with Google's executive chairman Eric Schmidt, Khan Academy founder Sal Khan said it's good that students are getting that kind of conceptual understanding of how programming works, but only a few people actually apply it to the real thing.

"You don't see a lot of people make the jump from that or block-based programming to real, syntactic programming," Khan said.

The real question is how to get students to cross that gap and realize coding itself isn't really all that bad, Khan said. The thesis they ran with at Khan Academy was that they needed to get kids looking at the lines of code themselves as they work through the basic concepts. While they don't have any formal data, he said kids as young as third or fourth grade can take it on.

Many of Khan Academy's coding lessons have side-by-side boxes with lines of code on the left, and a visual on the right showing how the code changes whatever a student is working on. Kids can cut their teeth drawing faces with JavaScript, and before long could find themselves making and rotating 3D objects.

All kids need to know is some basic math and know their way around computers and they're ready to get started, no programming experience required, according to Pamela Fox, a computer science content engineer at Khan Academy. Fox said she's seen kids as young as 8 years old work through computer science lessons, but it's really the students 12 years old and up who tend to thrive.

The lessons aren't flawless out the gate, and Fox said they rely on feedback from online comments as well as data showing how long it takes kids to finish each one to make adjustments. She said one in particular, a tutorial on how to re-size objects with variables, stumped a lot of younger students because they struggle with proportional fractions and variables. They have since completely redone the tutorial and changed the object from a multi-limbed penguin to an elliptical face, Fox said.

"We likely won't ever be able to teach something in a way that works for every learner, and that's why I'm happy we have a great community that answers questions and comes up with their own alternative ways of explaining the tricky concepts," she said in an email.

Other educators say they're taking a more holistic approach, working directly with students after school and over the weekend in a project-based learning environment. Jessie Arora, founder of the education startup Embark Labs, has been focused on helping elementary and middle-school kids learn what she calls computational and design thinking, an integral part of understanding how coding works.

"Right now all of what I've read is learning how to code, but that's just one part of the broad skill set needed in that field," Arora said.

There are plenty of coding bootcamps and opportunities for adults to learn these skills, Arora said, but kids are often stuck in classrooms and libraries designed with "old practices" in mind. So instead, she and long-time teacher Brian Van Dyck have run a number of after-school programs and Saturday schools to teach students about the essentials. Recently, Embark Labs hosted three classes in the Google Garage, where students between first and fourth grade were exposed to a novel concept: teaching code offline.

Arora said a lot of how code works can be represented through physical objects like Legos, and that a Lego "build" can translate into written-up code based on the orientation and position of the pieces. By giving kids a visual and hands-on understanding of the concepts with an active instructor present, she said students have a much better idea of what they're doing when they go online.

One of the hurdles in computer science that many educators are still grappling with is the gender gap, as woman continue to be underrepresented in the computer science field. Women earned only 14 percent of the bachelor's degrees in computer science in 2013 across the country, and statistics from Khan Academy show only 34 percent of the students who take up the first "coding challenge" on the website are female.

But there are some positive signs. Fox said that while females are less likely to delve into coding, once they get into the coding challenges their success rate is almost exactly the same as males. Arora, on the other hand, said she has seen an almost perfect 50-50 split between girls and boys in the classes they've hosted. She said it really comes down to how they've marketed the program to appeal to girls, showing how coding is all about building unique projects with friends and working together.

Email Kevin Forestieri at kforestieri@mv-voice.com

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