Coding making its way into local curriculum as critical skill for future workforce
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A chorus of exasperated sighs echo from Monica Hamilton’s classroom at Summit Schools, a private, non-profit prekindergarten through fifth grade school in Cedar Rapids.
Her third- and fourth-grade students have spent the last three days learning how to code using Spheros — spherical robots programmed via iPads.
“It’s very hard,” said 8-year-old Salma Abu-Halawa, still smiling despite her frustration.
She’s trying to program the Sphero to move around a piece of paper in a perfect rectangle, but it’s not so simple.
“You have to get it to do what you want it to do and find the mistakes and keep trying over and over again,” she said, tinkering with the controls. “I’m so close ... getting closer.”
It might be a challenge, but Hamilton said her students are “having a blast” learning critical coding skills necessary for the future.
According to whitehouse.gov, it’s estimated that by 2018, 51 percent of all science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) jobs will be in a computer science-related field, which is why on Jan. 30, President Barack Obama unveiled the “computer science for all” initiative, which commits $4 billion to expanding access to computer science for elementary and middle school teachers and students across the nation.
“In this generation, just having some idea of how things work on a computer is really valuable,” said Hannah Buettner, an AmeriCorps member who led a free four-week workshop at the Cedar Rapids Public Library in January that taught kids the basics of coding using a children’s book called “Hello Ruby” — the library will offer the same program again beginning March 1.
Knowing how computers work makes kids “literate in a world where we’re surrounded by technology,” agreed Matt Wilkinson, whose 6-year-old son participated in the workshop.
Even without a computer, Buettner taught kids as young as 5 years old how to problem solve, recognize patterns and learn from their failures using activities in the book, she said.
“People might seem shocked that a 5-year-old can learn the fundamentals of programming, (but) I don’t think it’s really age-based,” said David Tominsky, the lead mentor at Imagination Iowa, a prekindergarten through 12th grade STEM program that encourages creativity, fosters entrepreneurship and helps kids learn to code.
“A lot of people think they need to be in middle school and high school to work on critical thinking skills, but any kid can do anything you put in front of them if you give them the support they need,” Hamilton agreed.
The younger they start, the more time they have to build their skills and increase the opportunity for invention and improvement in technology, Wilkinson added.
In fact, now his son says he wants to “an inventor” when he grows up.
But if Tominsky were to “tell the state they should require coding in school,” he’d recommend starting in third grade.
“A third-grader is fully capable of getting through a program like code.org and understanding what they’re doing,” he said. “To be able to complete some of these programs is one thing, but to actually understand what you’re doing is another.”
Code.org and similar online programs such as Codecademy, Code Avengers, Code Monster, Scratch, and Tynker deliver the concepts of coding to kids through a fun and easily-digestable platform: games.
“Instead of just sitting in front of a video game, they’re thinking about the process behind it,” said Shannon Salmon, the learning extensions and summer camp director at Summit Schools. “They don’t even realize they’re learning because it’s fun.”
The goal isn’t necessarily to raise kids to be programmers, but simply to teach problem solving at an early age, which, according to Hamilton, is really all coding is.
“It’s trying something and if it’s not working, (it’s) figuring out what’s going on with it,” she said. “It’s critical thinking.”
The more kids that are exposed to coding at a young age, the better chance we have of “continuing to lead the world in science and technology,” Wilkinson said.
“We’re talking about a 21st century skill,” Tominsky added. “The jobs of tomorrow will require technical aptitude and that’s just a reality.”
Hamilton expects to see a “huge change” in the way schools approach programming, requiring those skills earlier than ever before, even in public schools.
In the last two years, the Cedar Rapids Community School District has become more serious about incorporating coding into the curriculum. Today nearly every school in the district has at least participated in Imagination Iowa’s “hour of code” program offered through code.org, said Trace Pickering, the district’s associate superintendent and Iowa BIG co-founder.
What they’re finding, he said, is that coding helps students better grasp mathematical concepts.
When math is presented as an “abstract thing” or “a bunch of random problems to solve,” it can be difficult to understand how it can be applied in the real world, said Shawn Cornally, math teacher and Iowa BIG co-founder.
But with computer programming, you’re given a “bigger goal that means something to you,” like a game you’re trying to build or a task you’re trying to complete.
By finding relationships in patterns of code — using math — you can make that goal become a reality, he explained, and “suddenly math doesn’t seem so stupid or random.”
Giving students fun, real-life applications to math fosters a “much more innovative and successful world than the world of people who hate math now,” he continued.
“More kids will identify problems and solutions that can be solved with math and coding, rather than avoiding those problems like they do now,” he said.
And that is a future he said he “can’t wait for.”