A lot more kids are playing computer games this week, but not to dodge their schoolwork.
Thousands of Inland Northwest students are taking a stab at computer coding, creating games to play and share with others, as part of a global learning event called Hour of Code. The weeklong emphasis is designed to demystify computer code and show that anyone can learn the basics of programming.
Sixth-graders at four Spokane elementary schools are taking part in the initiative this week, with most giving computer science a shot for the first time.
Lily Johnson Mace took to the drop-and-drag coding on Tuesday almost like second nature. Thirty-five minutes into the hour she’d already made “Frozen” princess Elsa draw squares, circles, loop-to-loops and snowflakes.
“At first I thought it was hard, then it was easy,” the Hamblen Elementary School student said.
Mace next moved onto the Play Lab coding area where she went through a few exercises before creating her own game. She made a cat kill a dragon with a fireball and exclaim, “I got you.” The dragon disappears. “What a day,” the cat says. A dinosaur hungry for cat then shows up.
“Every time you drag and drop, you are programming,” said Mace’s teacher, Chelsey Kirkpatrick. “ You are programming.”
Introducing students this young to computer science is exciting, Kirkpatrick said. When Spokane’s elementary teachers had the opportunity to learn some programming, “we jumped on it,” she said.
In Coeur d’Alene, math teacher Dale Johnson is leading the charge to expose Woodland Middle School students to coding. All 800 students at the school will spend time this week participating in the Hour of Code.
“It’s very engaging because kids are creating instead of just passively playing,” Johnson said.
He shows how one student places code in order to instruct a character on the screen to turn left or right and take a specific number of steps to navigate a virtual landscape.
“It’s really good practice for problem-solving and critical thinking,” Johnson said.
The lessons are even sparking career ideas for some.
“I want to be a game creator,” Woodland sixth-grader Carson Biggerstaff said. “I want to change peoples’ lives; help them have fun with their games.”
Biggerstaff, 12, and others in his math class spent an hour Tuesday writing lines of code for simple game maneuvers. Working on Samsung Chromebooks, they used the event’s tutorial website to learn programming fundamentals and see their creations unfold.
“The more you know, the further you can go,” Biggerstaff said.
Organized by the nonprofit Code.org, the Hour of Code reached 15 million students when launched a year ago. This year, organizers hope to reach 100 million in the U.S. and around the world. As of Tuesday afternoon, more than 61 million young people had logged in and written more than 3.4 billion lines of code.
The organization believes computer science and programming should be part of the core curriculum of primary education, along with science, technology, engineering and mathematics. While all students in China are learning computer science, only 10 percent of American schools teach the subject.
Having students learn computer coding reinforces math concepts such as negative numbers, angles and coordinates, Johnson said. And that helps him answer the age-old question: Why do we need to learn this?
“I can smile and say this is where you’re going to use this,” he said.
His advanced learning math classes have been learning coding for about a month now using Scratch, a free programming language. The students create their own interactive stories, games and animations, which they can share with others online.
Young people with coding know-how are in high demand for jobs that use all sorts of technology. “Almost everything has a computer chip in it,” Johnson said.
But the knowledge is also valuable for those who don’t enter the field of programming, he said.
“If you’re in a group where you have to have apps written for you, you have to have an understanding of how coding works,” he said.
At least 10 Spokane public schools are participating in the Hour of Code this week. A Central Valley High School teacher and Spokane-based IntelliTect, a high-end software engineering firm, will team up today for two classes, and Liberty Lake and Sunrise elementary schools plus Spokane Valley Tech also are participating this week.
Students seem eager to delve deeper into the subject.
Teacher Telia Sherwood at Madison Elementary School put out a notice recently about starting a Computer Science Club and had 66 students sign up, a bigger response than she anticipated. So she started two after-school clubs that use the Code.org platform.
Sherwood is piloting this work to help Spokane district officials consider an after-school Computer Science program in all elementary schools next year.