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Kids flex computer skills in Hour of Code

December 19, 2018

Dancing animals, including a moose doing the floss, filled the screens of Bill Wiley’s sixth-grade science class as students experimented with computer coding.

The kids, huddled around their school iPads, joined an international Hour of Code, a 60-minute introduction to computer science offered by Code.org. The nonprofit aims to increase access to computer science for women and under-represented minorities.

According to the organization, 25 percent of U.S. students have an account with Code.org and 700,000 teachers use its website, which is supported by donors like Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

The theme for this year’s coding challenge was “dance party” — hence the animated moose flossing (for those not in the know, an arm-swinging dance move) to trendy pop songs.

Wiley’s Jackson Hole Middle School class has participated in Hour of Code activities over the past few years. But the one driving the computer science movement at the middle school has long been Barb Sanchez, the gifted and talented (also known as the PEAK program) coordinator who also heads up Science, Math, Technology, Engineering, Art and Math — better known as STEAM — at the school.

In 2016 Gov. Matt Mead signed a proclamation declaring Dec. 4 through 11 Computer Science Education Week.

“It’s a tradition we’re going to continue,” Wiley told his students.

Google and an energy infrastructure company, Williams, donated funds to incentivize schools to participate. Each school that hits 100 percent participation is entered to receive a $500 award to purchase materials, technology or equipment for its classrooms.

Some area elementary schools, like Jackson and Colter, have been participating in the Hour of Code movement since its inception in December 2013. Colter teacher Annie Sampson won a $10,000 grant in 2015 because she had the entire school participate.

From day one, Wiley said, Hour of Code has been a good experience at the secondary level.

“It’s the wave of the future,” he said.

The earth science teacher attended a few coding workshops and a STEAM camp over the summer to get up to speed on coding himself. If he’s asking students to have a “productive struggle” in learning new things, Wiley said, he might as well do the same and take a walk in their shoes.

“I’m a volcanoes, earthquakes, geology, clouds kind of guy,” he said. “I used a green-screen word-processor-type computer in college, so this was so out of my wheelhouse.

“But you just adapt,” he said. “Even if you can’t touch your toes you’ve got to be flexible.”

Being exposed to code at a young age, Wiley said, is important. He told his class that the number of jobs in the computer science field still rapidly outpaces the number of college students graduating with a degree in the field.

“We’re coming up short,” he said. “And if you think about it, computer science is the way of the future. It’s the coolest of the cool stuff. That’s why we code.”

8th-grader’s code in the lesson

This year’s Hour of Code was made even more special by the accomplishments of Cate Zolik, a Teton County eighth-grader who is the first student — not in the district, not in Wyoming, not in the United States, but internationally — to have her code incorporated in the curriculum.

“It’s overwhelming, but at the same time I’m proud that I earned this achievement,” the 13-year-old said. “I’m really proud. I never thought that I would’ve gotten it.”

Cate was introduced to the coding program by her “challenge” teacher, Sanchez. It was an extra animation project in which students had to fill a blank background themselves. Students were told about the opportunity, but it wasn’t a mandated assignment for school — Cate ended up working on it at night and on weekends when she had time.

Cate used the function “draw loop” that repeats itself over and over to create the letters of the alphabet in a background that popped up at different moments to remix different words.

She said she likes to code because it’s “really fun,” a sentiment shared by many other middle schoolers.

“You can be yourself and you can be creative with it,” Cate said. “I want to keep doing it.”

Sixth-grader Charles Bigelow, 11, agreed that coding is fun.

“You get to make it do whatever you want,” he said. “It’s different.”

Savannah Korpi, also 11, said she enjoys seeing her code play out in real time on the screen. It’s instant feedback on the code she created.

“I like to watch it once you finish it,” she said.

Bigger computer science push

Teton County schools are pushing full steam ahead in preparation for the addition of computer science into K-12 school curriculum by the 2022-23 school year. Computer science is already a “special” in the elementary schools, but it will also need to be a mandatory elective course at the middle school and a class that counts as a math, science or computer science credit at the high school.

The school district says current staff is setting it up for success.

“We have a lot of teachers who have been teaching computers over the past few years and are pretty progressive in their thinking,” said Holly Voorhees Carmical, the district’s director of curriculum. “We’ve been in a pretty prime place. I think we’re probably one of the few districts that thinks we can move forward pretty seamlessly because of that.”

Mead signed legislation in March to incorporate computer science into the state’s educational program to prepare students for 21st-century life.

A big part of implementing the curriculum is having qualified teachers. The district is trying to certify existing teachers instead of trying to hire new ones.

“The [computer science] requirement came without additional funding,” said Charlotte Reynolds, Teton County School District No. 1 information coordinator. “So anything we can do to utilize existing staff and resources, that would obviously be the preference.”

The school district recently won a Wyoming Department of Education grant to help train teachers in computer science. It was one of five in the state to win the grant, which funds a three-year mentorship model and professional development.

At the middle school, Voorhees Carmical said, the district is “already good” thanks to certified teachers like Sanchez.

“Computer science isn’t just about technology. There’s a whole element of computational thinking in there,” she said. “That’s already embedded in math courses. So we should be really set in our middle school right now as we move forward with computer science.”

She said she’s most looking forward to how the computer science thought process will bolster learning across disciplines.

“It’s not a formulaic process,” Voorhees Carmical said. “You really have to be a critical thinker, and developing those skills across each content area excites me.

“It’s not just in computer science, but we’re doing that in math, we’re doing that in ELA [English Language Arts], we’re doing that in social studies. We’re really trying to push those 21st-century skills with our students. It’s just one more place where kids can learn to be a flexible thinker.”

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