Children today are immersed in technology. Often, they are passive consumers. But in some schools, even kindergarteners are learning computer programming.
Kindergartener Kaitlyn Clausen sits at a computer working through a coding puzzle at Abbie Sawyer Elementary School in Ames. Around her, the class is noisy, but focused. Kids lean on tables to get a closer look at the screen or reach across a friend’s keyboard to help. All Sawyer students have spent more than an hour coding since last December.
When Kaitlyn programs the character on the screen to do a series of steps and jumps, the words “Great Job” flash across her monitor.
“And it gives you a star if you don’t know how to read,” she says.
Reading is not a prerequisite for computer coding in Kirsti Minion’s classes. She found a wordless learn-to-code site to use with her youngest students.
“There’s just picture pieces that they drag over,” Minion says. “They have a character on the screen, they drag one picture over to make the character walk, they pull another picture over to make the character jump and then they click on the character and it does the command that they put together. So, yeah, even kindergarten has had fun coding.”
In looking for new ideas for her technology classes, Minion discovered Hour of Code, an international project to introduce basic programming to anyone. The children surprised her with their enthusiasm for it. Most have had a lot of fun.
“It also brings in problem solving skills, gets them using critical thinking skills,” Minion says, “and math, as well, to figure out the puzzles and what code they need to use.”
In another class session, Minion helps fifth grader Ike Alexander. He’s trying to draw a black shape.
“Sometimes it’s kind of hard and strange to find out how much angle you have to do,” he says. Once he figures it out, he calls out to another boy, asking how to change the color. But he finds the answer before his classmate even responds.
Denise Crawford directs the Center for Technology in Learning and Teaching at Iowa State. She says these educational goals are part of the common core, even if coding per se is not. Teaching kids programming isn’t new, but Crawford says it’s easier than ever because the technologies are more user friendly, even for younger kids.
And programming can sometimes click with a student who doesn’t shine in other academic areas.
“In coding, we're going to require students to think different than how we typically maybe are asking them to think during the school day,” Crawford says.
And she says that can have a profound impact.
“This one spark, what if this hits with one student that otherwise wouldn't have academically been interested in something like that? It seems worth it.”
From kindergarten to fifth grade, the students get another benefit of the coding sessions. They are encouraged to collaborate, and that means students learning from their peers.
“I think it’s great when they help each other,” Minion says. “I’m happy to answer questions, and of course I do, but I think it’s even better when they can help each other problem solve and work through things.”
Minion says she’ll move on to other classroom activities before the kids get bored with coding. She wants to keep it fun. Already she says some students have gone home and done their own coding projects. Another bonus? Sawyer School won an Hour of Code prize.
Minion says she hopes to put the $4,000 grant from Google toward school iPads.