How One “Hour of Code” Can Launch an Entire Computer Science Program

| December 10, 2013 | 4 Comments
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code.org

By Sheena Vaidyanathan

Thanks to code.org‘s “Hour of Code,” millions of students will get their first taste of computer programming this week, Dec. 9-13, designated as Computer Science Education Week. If schools do decide to go beyond the one hour and take the next step to add coding as a part of school curriculum, what will this look like?

Getting kids excited about coding is the easy part. What about the stuff that administrators and educators must worry about — funding, teacher development, curriculum, connection to standards? And, where do you fit this “coding class” in a school day?

One school district, Los Altos School District (LASD) in the heart of Silicon Valley, Calif., may have some of these answers. They’ve been growing their coding program over the last four years and have begun answering many of these questions. LASD started like most educational programs in any district: small, with one teacher (me), one class, in one school — and then grew it based on results. After the success of digital art as an art unit in one school, an entire district-wide program called Digital Design in 2009 was created. This weekly Digital Design class gave every student in 4th-6th grade an opportunity to be creative using digital medium. Students worked on 2D vector art, 3D designs and art through programming using MIT’s Scratch.

After two years of a successful district-wide Digital Design class, LASD made an intentional decision to focus on the programming component and on sixth grade. The goal was to expose all students to computer science with a required class — called CSTEM (the C stands for creativity, collaboration and computer science) — and not wait until students encountered it as an elective in junior high or high school.

Sixth grade is a critical age to develop interest in STEM and computer programming areas, especially for girls. Research suggests that some of the strongest influences to attract girls to computing fields are early exposure as a required part of the curriculum and computing connections to broader areas of society. This premise may be working in LASD. One sixth-grade girl writes in her CSTEM notebook: “Before I started CSTEM class I thought it was only my older brother who was tech savvy, and I didn’t even want to try programming! But later I learned how to do it and it was easy! It was also fun, I want to learn if there are even bounds to what you can do with a computer.”

FOSTERING A GOOD ATTITUDE

One of best parts of this program is the attitude students have developed to computer programming. They view code as a creative medium and programming as a social activity. Many refer to programming as difficult, but fun. “You should try coding!” one student said. “It’s really fun, but I’m not promising that it’s easy. It’s really useful and it teaches you patience.”

LASD students today are no different from the students Seymour Papert encountered about 30 years ago, when he showed us that children could program computers using Logo. They think of this work as what Papert referred to in his article as “hard fun.”

LASDLegoWeDoScratch1

Sheena Vaidyanathan

The other big success story from CSTEM is that there does not seem to be any big gender gap in computing. Both girls and boys enjoy programming at this age. The bigger challenge is to get some of them to stop coding and leave the lab when the class is over! Students often continue to work on projects at home, posting questions and fragments of code or links to finished work on Edmodo. Last year, LASD held its first coding competition with 20 percent participation from the students. The biggest surprise: More girls than boys competed in the coding competition with most of them entering a team project.

CSTEM uses a variety of projects to engage all students, from building a motherboard in 3D, using a text-based language like Processing to connect math and art, and making math video games using Scratch.

The LASD program has made an ongoing effort to involve the community with showcase events, newsletters to parents, and presenting at conferences (ISTE,CSTA, California 1st STEM conference). This has kept interest in program alive within the community and it has generously supported it through its parent-led education foundation. It does help that the district is situated in Silicon Valley and many parents are in the tech industry. However, with the national interest in teaching students coding this may now be easier in other districts as well.

This year, a new STEM teacher in each of the LASD elementary schools was funded, as well as professional development for these teachers to learn and teach computational thinking/early programming lessons to all students, beginning in kindergarten. The STEM teachers are not computer science majors but have embraced the opportunity to learn to code and are passing on their enthusiasm to their students, learning right along with them. Today, all LASD students have some exposure to code, using Bee-Bots in K-2, Lego WeDo and MIT’s Scratch in grades 3-5, JavaScript/Arduino/Scratch/Processing in grade 6 and a robotics elective in  grades 7-8.

What this program will look like next year is not yet known. However, as students put in their hour of code this week, they know there are many more fun hours of code coming right up.

Sheena Vaidyanathan teaches the 6th grade CSTEM Program at Los Altos School District.  You can find more information about her work here.

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  • David V. Loertscher

    the idea of coding and making in maker spaces is being embraced by Library Learning Commons across the country. I would recommend that you operate alongside the teacher librarian in the Library Learning Commons to provide a great boost to all kinds of innovative learning experiences and to co-teach alongside the faculty of the school. Embedding these experiences into real learning in science, social studies, art and literature can boost the entire school into a whole new educational experience and you sit it an area where this is a big deal.

  • Pingback: OTR Links 12/12/2013 | doug --- off the record

  • Brian Campbell

    It’s amazing what you’ve done and I love the part about the girl that had fun programming when before she thought it was only for her older brother! It’s crucial to introduce kids to programming at an early age, especially girls, before they become jaded by the social stigma around programming. We need to work to help kids develop these 21st century skills and to provide them with “hard fun”. iD Tech is a great summer camp option with locations in Silicon Valley and across the country. They offer a variety of programming courses as well as other STEM courses for kids as young as 7 years old.

  • Jody Weissler

    First of all the idea of one hour of code is great. Having participated in SCRATCH day (Scratch being MIT’S introductory computer language) for several years now I understand the importance of introducing students and in many cases parents to computer science. The problem that I have however is that the hour of code should not be a week before Christmas break. An hour of code should be week one! How many schools are going to have the hour of code, go to winter break and then not follow up?