VINTON–Herman L. Horn Elementary School students joined millions of others around the world to participate in this year’s Hour of Code event. The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science, designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics of coding (programming).
The event is held during the week of December 7-13, which is designated as Computer Science Education Week. Organizers estimate that over 190,000 events are held in 180 countries in 40 different languages during that time period. According to HLH teacher librarian and technology specialist Bradley Yarbrough, “It is considered to be the largest learning event in history.”
Students can participate in the Hour of Code tutorial at any time during the week. Yarbrough chose to start off the week bright and early on December 7 with a session with fifth graders in the school library.
“Computers are everywhere, but fewer schools teach computer science than 10 years ago,” said Yarbrough. “Girls and minorities are severely underrepresented. Good news is, we’re on our way to change this.”
Yarbrough told the 16 students participating in the Hour of Code tutorial at HLH that they were fortunate that the Roanoke County Public school system is one that embraces computer science and makes classes available at the high school level. Even students in the early grades have access to computer technology in Roanoke County with mobile carts of iPads for use in classrooms, computer labs, and eventually the individual laptops provided in secondary schools.
The Hour of Code is organized by the non-profit Code.org and over 100 others partners, such as Microsoft, Apple, the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, and the College Board. Last year every Apple Store in the world hosted an Hour of Code event. The Code.org goal is to make computer science “accessible for all ages, for all students,” especially women and minorities.
“This is a statement that today’s generation of students is ready to learn critical skills for 21st century success,” said Yarbrough.
At HLH, the Hour of Code tutorial began with watching a brief video about coding. Possibly the most impressive part of that activity to an observer was hearing children call out the names of faces they recognized in the video—Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg, Steve Jobs, President Obama, and Jeb Bush, not just the celebrity entertainers and athletes.
Code.org states that the Hour of Code will not teach anybody to become an expert computer scientist in one hour, but that one hour is enough to discover that computer science is fun and creative. They hope to engage students so that there will be increased participation in Computer Science courses at all grade levels.
Engagement was immediate for the HLH students during the Hour of Code session. After the video, Yarbrough introduced the free-for-the-hour Lightbot app on their iPads, and the students were immediately off and running–and coding.
According to their website, Lightbot is an educational video puzzle game which “introduces several principles of programming such as sequencing, conditions, and loops, without consciously typing or coding.” The game requires students to use programming logic to advance to higher levels.
In the game students command a tiny robot to navigate a maze and turn on lights. They arrange symbols on the screen that command the robot to walk, turn, jump, turn on the lights, and so on. They combine symbols for “forward, turn left, turn right, jump, and light” to move the robot through the maze.
The mazes and symbols become more complicated as the tutorial progresses. Students learn to combine the steps into procedures–blocks of code that take advantage of re-usable patterns—shortcuts in a sense. They organize the blocks of code into patterns that repeat or “loop.” They also learn to run and re-run the programs they create, “debugging” to test their solutions and fix mistakes.
The students in this initial HLH Hour of Code event were selected by the several different fifth grade teachers who thought these particular students would enjoy it the most.
Yarbrough described coding to the students as “learning how to talk to the computer, to tell it what to do.” He noted that it takes teams of thousands in some cases to write programs such as Microsoft Word.
He also told the students participating that he hoped the Hour of Code might lead some of them to a lifetime of interest in computer science, or at least better computer skills, even if they did not enter a specific career involving computer technology.
He pointed out that different coding programs are available to them even at home from the HLH website. He also encouraged them to engage their brothers, sisters, and friends in the fun of coding.
When one student thought his computer had a “glitch,” Yarbrough explained that the computer was just doing what the student had told it to do by entering commands, which needed to be revised for the robot to proceed through the maze.
One student enthusiastically commented about experiencing success after just a few moments with the tutorial, “I’m doing it—this is so cool!”
Yarbrough said that teaching coding is not emphasized more in schools because it is not one of the Standards of Learning (SOL’s). He hopes to expand the Hour of Code tutorials to include many more students next year.
“It is fun to see kids come to realize that computers aren’t just something to use like a typewriter, that what they are using is a toolbox,” said Yarbrough.
“Today’s generation of elementary students is more than ready to embrace cutting edge technology to support their own learning goals,” said Peggy Stovall, principal at Herman L. Horn.