Blog, STEM, Technology

Coding is Cool

By Ami Mamolo

It’s official. Computer programming is cool. And not just a tepid sort of as-seen-on-TV cool, but a seething hot rock star kind of cool. It must be, anyhow, if people like will.i.am (The Black Eyed Peas) are speaking up about how important this skill is for kids to learn.

And he’s not the only one.

From the mouths of babes (of the sexy computer scientist type), we hear that:

“Every student deserves the opportunity to learn computer programming. Coding can unlock creativity and open doors for an entire generation of American students. We need more coders — not just in the tech industry, but in every industry.” – Mark Pincus, CEO and Founder, Zynga

“Coding is engaging and empowering. It’s a necessary 21st Century skill.” – Jan Cuny, Program Officer, National Science Foundation

“Code has become the 4th literacy. Everyone needs to know how our digital world works, not just engineers.” – Mark Surman, Executive Director, The Mozilla Foundation

“If you can program a computer, you can achieve your dreams. A computer doesn’t care about your family background, your gender, just that you know how to code. But we’re only teaching it in a small handful of schools, why?” – Dick Costolo, CEO, Twitter

In schools across Canada, teachers are taking the initiative of introducing coding in their elementary and middle school classrooms. Recently, the CBC reported a growing trend where of students are learning coding—something they called a small movement, but one that is picking up steam. Across the pond, a new computing curriculum, set to come into effect this September, includes an introduction to coding, computer science, and computational thinking. Starting in kindergarten, kids in the UK will learn about coding and computational reasoning, along with Internet safety, digital literacy, and how things like email work. For teachers, these changes can be both exciting and intimidating.

The reality is that not many K-8 grade school teachers have much experience coding themselves, and few, if any, teacher education programs include professional development in this area. However, in a refreshing change from the usual implement-first, develop-later approach to new curricular ideas, there is at least one teacher education program with its antennae up.

Teacher preparation programs such as the one offered at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology (UOIT) have already started making space for teacher candidates to develop skill, understanding, and experience with coding and teaching coding. From core courses in digital literacies, to electives in game design, to an educational camp for local school children, teacher candidates are invited to experience the possibilities of learning through coding.

“One of the really exciting opportunities for teacher candidates and local students is our March Break digital literacies camp,” said Dr. Suzanne de Castell, Dean of UOIT’s Faculty of Education.

This year, the camp theme centred on gaming, gaming culture and coding and was designed to help prepare students for Education Quality and Accountability Office (EQAO) testing. Led by Dr. Janette Hughes, Assistant Dean, and her research assistant Laura Morrison, teacher candidates and gaming and coding enthusiast Dr. Brock Dubbels, led students through a variety of digitally-infused literacy and numeracy activities to help them prepare for the upcoming provincial testing. The camp was held in UOIT’s Digital Literacies Research and Development Lab, where students learned basic coding skills, where they progressed throughout the week. Through a network of activities, students were introduced to designing and programming game animations that culminated in coming up with their own game ideas and designs.

“The activities the students engaged in were fun, dynamic and relevant to their lives, both within the classroom walls and beyond” said Dean de Castell. “It was important for us that the students, and our teacher candidates, could make meaningful connections between our coding activities and these students’ up-coming EQAO testing. Through coding activities, we can foster the development of digital literacy skills that integrate computing science and math content in a way that prepares students to succeed in an increasingly digital world.”

Coding can be an empowering activity for students, as Dr. Hughes points out. “Kids are engaged in difficult problem-solving activities that allow them to make progress at their own paces and see the results right away. Even though most of the students at our March Break camp found the coding to be pretty tricky, it was their favourite part.”

“Overall, the students were very positive about their experience,” says Laura Morrison. “They were saying things like, ‘I liked when we got to use Scratch [a simple coding program]. We got to make our own little guys…I got to be whoever I want…’ Many of the students agreed that being able to create their own characters was a highlight.”

Ok, so we get it. Coding is the next best thing. But, is this all just hype?

“Learning to code is an important skill in our digital age because it enables students to learn another language and to think computationally,” explained Dr. Hughes. “Not only is it cool for students to be able to write a sequence of code that will make a character move on screen, but it also allows them to ‘look under the hood’ and get a better understanding of how things work around them.”

Coding gives students a new way to communicate, and one that has far-reaching importance for their future careers and global citizenry. Through coding kids can go from reading about world issues to doing something about them. Not only that, but coding requires the kind of precision, trouble-shooting, and logical deduction that are inherent in mathematical thinking and problem-solving in general.

This doesn’t sound like hype, and the kids seem to love it.

Now all we need is Drake to make his next video using Scratch.

Sources:

“New National Curriculum To Teach Five Year Olds Computer Programming” by Steve McCaskill, TechWeek, July 8, 2013

“UK to Teach Programming Starting at Age 5” by Mike James July 9, 2013

“Educators call for reform in how programming is taught in schools” David Crooked, November 2013

Dr. Ami Mamolo is an Assistant Professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

Here’s a great infographic from SkilledUp explaining the life of a computer programmer so students can have an idea of the required skills and lifestyle of a front end developer: 

life-of-an-frontend-developer-infographic-620

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