Students Learn Computer Code; Local School Picks Up $10,000

Thousands of students across Kent ISD (and millions nationwide) got a one­hour lesson in computer coding from top-level experts as part of an industry-led effort to teach kids how computers work.  One lucky school Kraft Meadows Middle School in Caledonia – received a $10,000 check along with it.

The nationwide Hour of Code project saw more than ten million students learn about coding last month. Locally, students from the public school districts of Byron Center, Caledonia, Grand Rapids, and Thornapple Kellogg, participated.

It’s a skill that will one day be as important as “reading, writing and arithmetic,” said Hadi Partovi, co­founder and CEO of Code.org, the nonprofit behind the effort.

The coding lesson used images from popular video gamesKnowing how computer coding works is crucial, Partovi explained, because it touches everything people use, from phones to laptops to social media. Local educators agree. “Technology is increasingly shaping almost every aspect of how we live our lives,” said Cary Stamas, Kraft Meadows Middle School principal.

“We’re using all this stuff, why don’t we learn how it works?” asked the school’s Smart Lab instructor Rebecca Sowerby, who initiated the school’s participation in the Hour of Code Day.

Supporting the ongoing project are some of the biggest names in the computer world. Engineers from Microsoft, Google, Twitter and Facebook designed a video tutorial for the Hour of Code to teach basic coding principles.

Artwork from popular games such as Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies was used to introduce the concepts. Speaking to students in the video were famous technology experts: Bill Gates, former chief executive and current chairman of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook co­founder and CEO.

When Sowerby heard about the Hour of Code event she loved the idea, and quickly applied to participate.  She also entered the contest for the $10,000 to be given to one school in each state.

: Liv Ghent and Shelby Van Dyke learned how computer coding works

She loved it even more when her school won the Michigan prize. The money was used to purchase 16 iPad minis, three Macbook Pros and an Apple TV to project computer screens on a TV. Every teacher in the building also got 10 free gigabytes of storage from dropbox.com.

Students in Sowerby’s classroom weren’t sure what to expect when they sat down to do the coding lesson. “Apparently I did something wrong,” said Liv Ghent after she made a mean­looking guy on her screen attack a munchkin with a sword.

The lines of coding the students were creating looked something like this:

“movexy( )get NearestEnemy( )attack( )say( )setTargetPos( ) jump( )isFriend( )bustDownDoor( ).”

Every piece of punctuation, every letter and every space have to be perfect or the coding doesn’t work, and things go wrong (like an attack on a munchkin).

It did take some thinking work from students, but their general attitude went from “I didn’t think I could even do this” to “it’s not as hard as it looks.”

 “We feel pretty blessed,” said Sowerby, of the opportunity her school had to participate in the Hour of Code.  She added she would like to see a class on coding offered at Caledonia.

Ninety percent of American schools don’t offer such a class, according to the Hour of Code Web site, and 95 percent never try it. Not enough students are learning computer science to fill the jobs of the future, either. Nearly 140,000 computing jobs are created every year in the U.S., but only 40,000 college students are graduating with a computer science degree, according to Code.org.

The organization has gathered names of more than one million people on its website asking schools to allow computer science to count as a math or science credit for graduation. It also is providing free courses, materials and funds for professional development so teachers can teach computer science classes.

Liv Ghent and Shelby Van Dyke, with instructor Rebecca Sowerby, were trying to get through a dungeon with their coding lesson

The companies behind the Hour of Code are also advocating to have computer science classes be part of the core curriculum in every school.

Student Ian Klug said learning coding didn’t take too long for having no idea what it’d be like. “I definitely wondered about how it was done,” he said. “I think it’s good to know how to do it.”

More than 500 Caledonia students participated in the event. Stamas liked what he saw after the lesson was over at the middle school. “Kids were walking and still coding after they were out of class,” he said.

More student reaction was heard outside of Sowerby’s class. A boy asked a friend coming out of the room what it was like, and he yelled back, “Dude, it was fun!”

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Tutorial students took during Hour of Code

Linda Odette
Linda Odette is a freelance writer and editor with more than 30 years of experience in journalism. She’s worked primarily as an editor in feature departments at newspapers in West Michigan, including the Grand Rapids Press, the Muskegon Chronicle and the Holland Sentinel. She lives in East Grand Rapids near the Eastown edge, has a teenage son and a daughter in college. Read Linda's full bio

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