Cracking the Code: Elementary Students Learn Programming Basics

'Oh! I did it!' Jamika Marshall exclaims after successfully completing a code, while Jaxon Ward roots her on

Brody Levandoski gazed at a computer screen, which showed him a flawed geometric puzzle program and a list of possible commands to fix it. It looked complicated, but Brody didn’t seem intimidated.

“I’ve always liked technology,” said the Belmont Elementary fifth-grader. “It’s fun.”  Thinking the problem through aloud, he said, “Hmm, I feel like turning left by 18 degrees would be too much, so …” and clicked on a command. “Well, THAT was wrong,” he confessed.

But being “wrong” is perfectly all right in this after-school computer coding club, which recently provided six weeks of digital learning for 20 Belmont third- through fifth-graders. Writing code and debugging programs was a creative process of trial and error while building computer literacy, as Brody clearly explained.

“If you make a mistake, you can repeat until you get the right answer,” he patiently told a technologically challenged visitor. “You’ve always got to try your hardest, and eventually you’re going to get it.”

This mistakes-are-OK approach is one of the beauties of Coding Club, said Principal Maggie Thelen. The club grew out of Belmont’s December hosting of the Hour of Code, an international tutorial that has introduced more than 100 million students to computer science.

“It’s a ton of problem-solving and collaboration,” Thelen said of the club. “They’re making mistakes but then they solve them.

“The cool thing is it levels the playing field,” she added, noting that some students who are not academic high achievers excel at coding. “It’s a totally different way of thinking.”

Teacher Aaron Linsley helps Matthew Corrigan (front) and Drew Burke complete a coding problem

Training Future Programmers  

Coding Club proved popular at Belmont. Nearly 50 students expressed interest in the club, which met for an hour once a week. Taught by Thelen and fifth-grade teacher Aaron Linsley, the club schooled students in the basics of writing the codes underlying computer programs, including games they like playing such as “Minecraft.”

Students worked through a series of puzzles and programs of ascending levels of difficulty. They manipulated student-friendly commands, such as “move forward by 100 pixels,” that represented underlying codes.

“It’s basic knowledge of coding,” Linsley said. “They’re writing code, but it’s kind of premade codes, just to get them familiar with the movements – the turning and the looping and the basic algorithms.”

The work involves a lot of math and problem-solving but allows for different ways of finding the answer, just as in real programming, Thelen said. She hopes it leads to an advanced course next fall where students could create their own apps and games.

“Hopefully these are our future programmers,” Thelen said, adding there is a shortage in that job field. “We want these kids to learn this is a skill and it’s in high demand right now.”

Some already seem to have a jump on it. Noah Seim was creating a story game involving a dog and a cat, controlling their conversation and movements with code. “It’s just really fun,” he said of coding.

Brody Levandoski saw possibilities down the road.

“In the future, they might have more things like this,” he said while he wrote code. “Other people who haven’t done this might not be as well prepared as some of us. So we’ll be able to teach them so that they won’t be confused.”

He could probably teach a few things right now, to people much older than he is.

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Hour of Code

Charles Honey
Charles Honey is a freelance writer and former columnist for The Grand Rapids Press/ MLive.com. As a reporter for The Press from 1985 to 2009, his beats included Grand Rapids Public Schools, local colleges and education issues. Honey served as editor of The Press’ award-winning Religion section for 15 years. His freelance articles have appeared in Christianity Today magazine, Religion News Service and the Aquinas College alumni magazine. Read Charles' full bio.

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