By Barbara Wood, Special to the Almanac
During the recent Computer Science Education Week, educators across the nation were encouraged to spend an hour teaching students how to write, or code, computer programs (www.Code.org).
At Woodside Elementary School, Lee Appelbaum, the educational technology coordinator, arranged to have every student in the kindergarten-to-eighth-grade school spend a class period coding.
"The Hour of Code is just to get everybody to put their toe in the water," said Mr. Appelbaum.
Kids in kindergarten and first and second grades worked with cute little robots called Bee-bots, punching in instructions to get them from one square on a plastic mat to another. Older students used a programming language called Scratch to write short computer games.
On Thursday afternoon Kathy McAdams' first-grade students joined Mr. Appelbaum in the school's computer lab, the fourth class of the day to try their Hour of Code.
Students first instructed the bee-shaped robots to move from one numbered box on a tabletop grid to another before Mr. Appelbaum gave them a more difficult challenge: Get to a numbered box to their left without making any left turns. Working in groups the students huddled together, punched in their instructions and then excitedly asked the others to watch the results.
There was jumping and shouting and laughing when it worked. "If it doesn't work out, then they just try again and it's no big deal," said Ms. McAdams.
While the task looked simple and the students appeared to be having a lot of fun, Mr. Appelbaum said the students were learning real programming skills: sequencing the order of instructions needed to reach a goal.
"It gives them some practice in actually thinking through the steps in solving a problem," he said. "By the time they're in first grade, they're pretty good."
The Scratch language was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Media Lab and, said Mr. Appelbaum, is used even at the college level to teach non-majors how to program.
Older students use a slightly more sophisticated version of Scratch called BYOB (Build Your Own Blocks).
On Friday, middle-schoolers worked in their science or math classes to write a simple video game using BYOB. This reporter was handed a laptop and invited to join in, and is happy to report that while it did take her two class periods instead of just one, she was able to put together instructions to make a working game in which animated characters chased each other around the screen.
The enthusiasm for programming seems to be spreading through Woodside Elementary, with students coming in to the computer lab before and after school and during recess and lunch periods.
Mr. Appelbaum is teaching interested students the Python programming language so that by the time they reach high school they are ready to program in Java.
Mr. Appelbaum said he believes that because computer programs are part of so many aspects of modern life that everyone needs to at least understand them, even if they do not become computer programmers.
"Some day it's going to be reading, writing, arithmetic and coding," he said of the traditional school basics.