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Thursday, December 12, 2013

Teaching Kids to Code at Colchester High — and Across Vermont

Posted By on Thu, Dec 12, 2013 at 12:41 PM

There are no computer science classes at Colchester High School, but this week, all 750 students there will receive an hour of computer-programming instruction, courtesy of an initiative called "Hour of Code."

The nationwide effort, launched Monday at the start of Computer Science Education Week, aims to expose kids in grades K-12 to computer-programming or "coding" instruction. It's organized by the nonprofit, which is backed by major tech companies such as Amazon, Apple and Google. These companies have a growing number of computer-programming jobs and are concerned that not enough qualified programmers and software engineers are being trained to fill them.

Because most K-12 schools don't teach coding, the organization provided lesson plans, including a series of free, self-guided tutorials that revolve around popular games such as Plants vs. Zombies and Angry Birds. hopes that 10 million kids around the country will each spend an hour this week on the tutorials. So far, it reports, about 9.5 million kids have met that goal.

That includes thousands of students from more than 110 schools across Vermont. Elementary, middle and high schools from Bennington to Castleton, from Lyndon to Cambridge, are participating. Some are offering the opportunity to certain groups of students; others, like Colchester High School, are opening it to the entire school. 

As part of the Hour of Code, one participating school in every state receives a grant from Google to purchase computing equipment. Colchester won the honor in Vermont, in part because its entire student body is participating.

That school held an assembly on Monday morning to kick off the week-long coding drive. Instead of heading directly to first period, students, school board members and school administrators gathered in the library for the presentation. It began with a star-studded video (see above) that emphasized how easy it is to start learning to program computers. Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg and NBA player Chris Bosh of the Miami Heat talked about their early experiences learning to code.

"I was in eighth grade when I learned to program," said Microsoft founder Bill Gates. Elena Silenok, creator of, confided, "I first learned how to make a green circle and a red square appear on the screen."

"It's really not unlike, kinda, playing an instrument or something, or playing a sport," said Drew Houston, creator of Dropbox.
click to enlarge Biology teacher Heather Baron - CATHY RESMER
  • Cathy Resmer
  • Biology teacher Heather Baron

The kids in Colchester perked up when the techies on screen started talking about how cool it is to work for one of these companies. The scenes of employees riding skateboards through the Facebook offices appealed to the slouching, hoodie-wearing teen sitting next to me. "Sick," he marveled. "What is that place?"

After the video, principal Amy Minor and Vermont's Education Secretary Armando Vilaseca presented the school with an oversize $10,000 check. They'll use the money to purchase another laptop cart with enough computers for a single class of students. It will augment the school's current supply of a few dozen laptops that all students share.

After the check presentation, the kids headed to their first-period class, where they started their coding instruction. All Colchester High students will spend either one math or one science class doing coding this week.

Most of the students in Heather Baron's biology class were eager to dive in. When Baron told them the'd be learning to program using the game Plants vs. Zombies, one girl shouted, "I love that game!" 

Once the kids booted up their computers, most of them started the first tutorial, which uses a simple, drag-and-drop tool called Blockly to move characters from Angry Birds through a grid. Others tried a tutorial that invited them to make holiday cards. 

Science teacher Will Warren, who has tried many of the lessons, said they're addictive. He stumbled on a few months ago and wondered if the tutorials might be something he could use at his school. "I spent the next 45 minutes doing it because I couldn't stop," he said.

Warren and math teacher Tara Sharkey organized Colchester High's participation in the Hour of Code and applied for the grant. Programming instruction is "a weak point" in Colchester's course offerings, Warren conceded. The teachers hope to spur a movement toward adding a computer science class at the school. 

Will an hour of coding instruction be enough to spark students' interests? Warren and Sharkey said they're still figuring out how to build on the enthusiasm they're generating. 
click to enlarge Sophomore Holden Goulet - CATHY RESMER
  • Cathy Resmer
  • Sophomore Holden Goulet

But some kids aren't waiting to be taught. As some of Baron's students wrote their first lines of code, sophomore Holden Goulet bypassed the basic tutorials in favor of a more advanced intro to Python. "I'm trying to program a bot that will talk back to you," he explained.

Goulet, who lives on his family's farm in South Hero, started learning programming on his own several years ago — "in fifth or sixth grade," he said. He already knows HTML, JavaScript and C Sharp. He's taught himself using online tools and other resources. His older brother is a senior at the Center for Technology in Essex. "I get my brother to ask them questions for me," he said.

He's not coding because he wants to get a good job; he just likes making stuff. But he admitted that his skills might be useful. "It seems like it'd be a good thing to know for the future," he said.

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