Hour of Code gives students first look at programming

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BENNINGTON — Her face scrunched with frustration, a third grader at Monument Elementary looks back over her program to determine why her avatar is spinning in place rather than moving forward. At Fisher Elementary in Arlington a class of kindergartners remains focused for over 40 minutes, trying to come up with a line of commands that will help their characters successfully move across the screen and locate the missing doughnuts.

Throughout Bennington County and all around the world, students from kindergarten through high school are this week getting a taste of computer coding through the "Hour of Code."

Hour of Code, which was created in 2013 by twin brothers Hadi and Ali Partovi of Code.org, encourages students to spend an hour learning about coding. The website offers free activities for students of all ages to practice both the basic concepts and more advanced coding, but it was only one of several methods that local teachers are using to help their students explore the world of programming.

Southwest Vermont Supervisory Union Tech Integration Specialist Sally Bisaccio said that the Hour of Code is not designed to be the students' only experience with coding, but rather an introduction. "Mostly what we're looking for is for people to just try it," she said. While it is up to individual teachers and principals to decide whether or not, or how to participate in the program, she said that all the schools of the SVSU are participating or have participated in the past.

Bisaccio compared coding to art and music, in that it represents another modality through which students can explore self-expression. "For some kids, that's an ideal way to express themselves," she said. "If that's their way, we just opened the door."

On Code.org, students can select from dozens of coding-related activities, many of which are themed after popular franchises, such as Minecraft, Star Wars, Disney's Frozen, and more. Students learn the process of coding through dragging and dropping commands, and more advanced students can even begin typing their own commands.

For younger students, some schools used other tools. At Monument and Bennington Elementary Schools, students used "BeeBots," small, programmable robots that move via inputted commands from the students. If, for example, a student pressed "forward, forward, forward, left, forward, go," the robot would move forward three times, rotate 90 degrees to the left, then move forward once more. From that point the student could either enter more commands, extending the code, or press cancel to start over.

Students worked in groups to try and navigate the BeeBots around obstacles, or through courses they designed. Working through trial-and-error, with a lot of problem solving, the students eventually succeeded. One industrious group of first graders in Ms. Harrington's class at Monument even managed to have their bot pushed a cylindrical block out of the way, back up, and navigate the rest of the way toward the goal.

One of the most common errors for students using the BeeBots for the first time was mistaking the function of the "right" and "left" arrows. Many interpreted them as meaning "move to the right" rather than "turn right," resulting in bots spinning in circles rather than moving toward their goals. At Bennington Elementary, after a student pressed the right arrow five times in an attempt to move the BeeBot closer toward his classmate, library media specialist Nichole Forest said, "Well, you only needed one, but it was kind of fun to watch it spin."

Hour of Code takes place each year during Computer Science Education Week, which this year is Dec. 4 through 10.

Arlington Memorial Middle and High School computer technology teacher Nicole DelNegro-Jozefiak said that Hour of Code gives her students a chance to explore programming without taking a full course. "I often find kids who didn't think they'd like computers find out it's something they like," she said. One of the students, Bailey Cross, said that he first discovered coding through a Khan Academy class, which sparked his interest. He then looked up C++ and Javascript tutorials on YouTube. Now, he's considering a minor in computer science.

Meanwhile, a former student, Maggie Smith, participated in Hour of Code, which led to her attending a computer science program through the Governor's Institutes of Vermont the next summer. Today, she's studying Information Technology and Web Science at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.

Monument Elementary third grade teacher Colleen Marcoux said that her students had taken to the coding activities. "They have a really good attitude," she said. "I haven't seen any frustration or 'This is too hard!'" Molly Stark Elementary third grade teacher Michael Nolan agreed, saying his students had been engaged in the activities all way, using teamwork and problem solving skills to crack the increasingly difficult puzzles.

"We believe that a quality computer science education should be available to every child, not just a lucky few," reads the "About" section on Code.org. "To support our goal, we do work across the education spectrum: designing our own courses or partnering with others, training teachers, partnering with large school districts, helping change government policies, expanding internationally via partnerships, and marketing to break stereotypes."

Derek Carson can be reached at dcarson@benningtonbanner.com, at @DerekCarsonBB on Twitter and 802-447-7567, ext. 122.

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