From Silicon Valley to Jackson Hole, coders are everywhere, including Teton County classrooms.
The fundamentals of coding, like recognizing patterns and linking objects, are translated into computer games for students as young as kindergarten. These skills are relevant for students in the 21st century, teachers say.
“There are jobs in every field that need computer programmers,” computer teacher Sara Kirkpatrick told a class of first-graders at Jackson Elementary School. “What do you think that means?”
While most of the students weren’t quite sure, they certainly loved learning to code.
As of last year, Dec. 4 to 11 is officially Computer Science Education Week in Wyoming. Schools are encouraged to participate by implementing a one-hour introduction to computer science, called Hour of Code, in their classrooms. Google and an energy infrastructure company, Williams, donated funds to incentivize schools to participate: Each school that hits 100 percent participation is entered to receive a $500 award to purchase materials, technology or equipment for its classrooms.
But in Teton County schools, coding is more than just an hour. It’s taught in computer class — which elementary schoolers in town and in outlying schools get once every six days for 50 minutes — and it is incorporated into science classes at Jackson Hole Middle School.
Like Jackson Elementary School, Colter Elementary has been a participating member in the Hour of Code movement since its inception in December 2013. All students, kindergartners included, participate in at least three hours of coding through Dec. 23. In 2015 Colter teacher Annie Sampson won a $10,000 grant because she had the entire school participate.
The students in Kirkpatrick’s class are learning Blockly, a visual programming language, through Code.org.
Code.org, a nonprofit that wants to increase access to computer science for women and under-represented minorities, says that 25 percent of students in the U.S. have an account and 700,000 teachers use its website. Donors such as Microsoft, Facebook and Google support the website.
Kirkpatrick started teaching at Jackson Elementary School 10 years ago. This is her fifth year of teaching coding and her fourth using Code.org. The best part? It’s free.
“Parents write me and tell me their kids are up until 9 p.m. and wake up at 6 a.m. to code,” she said. “I think it’s great for students who don’t necessarily succeed in the traditional classroom. It’s an opportunity to think differently.”
Signs in the classroom define words like computer science as “using the power of computers to solve problems.” Kirkpatrick told her students that “you have to learn really cool things in order to make things and help people.”
Incentives like a water bottle filled with toys and stickers for completing 100 lines of code motivate the students.
“Can you say algorithm?” Kirkpatrick asks. Her students are mostly successful, with little mispronunciations here and there. “Saying ‘algorithm’ makes us sound very smart.”
Students learn about bugs — problems in the algorithm — and how to fix them. Concepts that might be hard to understand are given a practical example: If a gymnast keeps failing to successfully complete a back handspring, how can she debug it to land correctly?
Her students worked on lines of code individually, progressing through levels with puzzles and characters.
Students were excited when they solved a challenge, letting out a “Yes” or making excited hand gestures. Headphones kept them focused on their own screens.
As students completed levels, Kirkpatrick used her iPad to track their progress. The technology helped her know which students needed assistance and who needed a challenge.
“For the kids who really get into it they can learn how to build apps or computer games,” she said, noting that coding is so popular with students that they’ll often work after school. “I wake up every morning excited to check it to see who’s been working overnight.”
Kirkpatrick can tell her students are learning when they help each other.
“When you can teach someone else, that’s how you can tell learning is really happening,” she said. Fifth-graders in the building helped kindergartners learn how to code in the next class.
Kirkpatrick hopes to teach her older students basic HTML coding skills in January.
“This is a tool for the future,” she said.