'Hour of Code' unveils the science of software programming

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DORSET >> Somewhere on a distant galaxy, far, far away, BB-8 has a problem.

BB-8, the robot who's taken over from where R2D2 left off, back in the mists of time before the release of the latest "Star Wars" movie, needs to move clumps of scrap metal from one place to another, without tripping over obstacles or running into any of the bad guys.

Michael Alfano, a Dorset School sixth grader, is among those coming to help, by writing the needed computer code to assist the friendly robot perform his tasks. It's part of the international "Hour of Code" held last week at Dorset and other area schools, as well as around the globe. Sponsored by code.org, a non-profit organanization based in Seattle, Wash., the now three-year old initiative aims to spark interest in computer science and programming on the part of today's elementary and middle school students. It uses three popular video games to teach them about what makes smartphones and other high-tech gadgetry work, by inviting them to write a few lines of computer code, or move blocks of text around that contain the code, to make their character pick up scrap metal — and more.

Under the hood of all the devices that have become part and parcel of everyday life are millions of lines of computer code, and the number of people who know how to write it are less numerous than the technology firms who make the hardware and software would like. To encourage youngsters to consider thinking about possibly becoming a software programmer, rather than simply being users of technology, the Hour of Code has developed some challenges to spark their curiosity.

Michael and his fellow sixth graders at the Dorset School computer lab can choose among the Star Wars themed game, or Minecraft or two characters from the Disney movie "Frozen," Queen Elsa and Princess Anna, who make snowflake designs, and write code either through moving blocks of text from the "toolbox" area to the "workspace," where they assemble them — or if they are adventurous, write the code in javascript, the main programming language in use today — to get their characters to work through a series of puzzles, which deepen in complexity as they go along.

"We have to pick this all up before he does something," Michael said as he punches in coded commands to make BB-8 move left and right between a series of obstacles as he picks up the needed scrap metal. After a few puzzles are successfully solved, an instructional video pops up on the screen, to set the stage for the next round. And so on, until all 20 are solved and the necessary code written.

Michael does some of them with blocks of text, others with the trickier javascript, which requires programmers to precisely — very precisely — type in the words and symbols to create the lines of code, just like real programmers do. That's the fun part, he said — "learning how to do things and make them happen."

Phyllis Tate is the computer lab teacher at The Dorset School and introduced her students to the Hour of Code when it first came out in 2013. A former computer programmer herself before getting into teaching technology, she finds the Hour of Code to be a great way to introduce elementary and middle school students to what makes all the devices many of them use daily actually work, she said.

"Kids are great users of technology, but they're consuming, not creating," she said. "Even if they don't become computer programmers, in any job, they're going to have to work with programmers and understand how computers think and work. Everything you do on a computer, somebody had to go through and do this stuff."

It's lke learning a foreign language, in a way, Tate said, an analogy she often uses with the students. They can work at their own speed, and at their own level, solving the puzzles one at a time as Tate moves from terminal to terminal, helping the students get unstuck if one of the blocks of code they have written or moved into place hasn't produced the desired result.

To reinforce the message that this is not only fun and cool, but has real career opportunities, a five minute video which starts the class features personalities like Bill Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft, and Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, along with a few other less well-known but regular folks who now work as engineers at places like Google or Twitter and talk about how they first got interested in coding. The implicit message is that if they can make the journey, so can the students who watching them. The field is expected to grow exponentially in coming years as companies scramble to hire qualified employees. In 2013, the median salary wfor a programmer was more than $76,000 according to U.S. News and World Report.

Computer programming is one of those careers that many middle school-age kids probably tend not to think about, said Dorset School Principal Rosanna Moran.

The Hour of Code is a way for them to connect the dots between career and consumption of technology, she said.

"It helps them really understand from the ground up what goes into all of that, and then there are some that say 'wow, I would like to do this,'" she said.

The Dorset School is not alone in hosting the Hour of Code — all the other schools in the Bennington-Rutland Supervisory Union do as well along with many others throughout Vermont. It's not part of the regular curriculum but depending on the student's and teacher's interest, school participate in it, said Daniel French, the BRSU superintendent.

While Phyllis Tate integrates it into her computer class, other schools may choose to do it as a school-wide activity, French said.

"It's certainly giving them some exposure to some of the basic skills involved in computer programming, which in itself has value," French said. "It's something the students are really interested in doing, and allows them to be creative and follow their interest."

For those students who do find their interest and imaginations fired up by the Hour of Code, code.org offers more advanced tutorials and projects for them to tackle. Or, like Michael Alfano, students can take online courses offered by Khan Academy or other organizations over the Internet.

All of which anticipates how actual programmers work in the real world, French added.

"They work online and share code — it's precisely that sort of networked way of working that we try to replicate in other areas of our curriculum as well."

Meanwhile, back at The Dorset School's computer lab, sixth grader Tatum Sands is finishing up making a snowflake pattern for Queen Elsa or Princess Anna. She tweaks the code to get the angle between the branches of the snowflake right, which takes a couple of tries before everything thing fits into place. Then, having solved the 20 puzzles she needed to do, she gets to print her own certificate authenticating her success at the Hour of Code. Does she want to be a programmer when she grows up?

"Maybe," she said.


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