Monday, December 9, 2013

Power of Code

When I was in eighth grade, circa 1983, our school got its first computer: a TRS-80 in the Media Center. A friend of mine and I were given the opportunity to use it. We were handed a book for learning the programming language BASIC and just dove in. In high school, our computer classes were programming classes: BASIC and Pascal were the two classes I took.

Fast forward to the school where I work today. Through our Digital Conversion initiative, our students are fortunate to each have a Macbook throughout the school year. Their experience of using computers is vastly different from my student days. It is a fantastic tool for accessing information, producing media, practicing skills, and communicating amongst students and staff.

While my students are using the computer in amazing ways, I have not seen anything about learning computer programming like I did as a student. The focus is on using a variety of web sites and applications, not creating them with code. Students produce a lot of cool media projects with iMovie, ComicLife, SketchUp, etc., but they don’t have any idea what is behind the applications and web sites they use every day.

Through a 3D GameLab quest line this past October, I learned some of the basics of Scratch, a kid-friendly programming language and web site created by a group at MIT. I was attracted to this tool partly out of nostalgia and partly because of the fun factor. Making a cartoon cat or robot or shark move around the screen at my command is a heady and extremely satisfying experience!

For my students, I saw this as a powerful tool for doing new things in new ways. We could go beyond creating a Keynote presentation or Paintbrush picture. Students could make something that moves, talks, interacts. So my first thought was that Scratch would kick our media production up a notch. My fifth grade students are already learning the basics in preparation for creating a project that shows the creatures that fill various niches in specific ecosystems.

In the last couple weeks, I have been hearing a lot about the Hour of Code, a promotional event for Computer Science Education Week, December 9-15, 2013. Their site has tutorials that just about anyone can use to learn coding using different tools such as Scratch. They also have infographics about the need for more computer science students and the underrepresentation of women and people of color.

This promotion increases my motivation to get all of my students using Scratch, not just as a cool media production tool, but as an experience with computer programming. My hope is not just that many of them will be prepared for good-paying jobs. I think about the power of knowing the language that runs our information economy. We are surrounded by apps and web sites and video games. I don’t want my students to be mere consumers of these tools. I want them to help shape them.

Photo credit:
Flominator. TRS-80 Model 1 - Rechnermuseum cropped. [GFDL or CC-BY-SA-3.0-2.5-2.0-1.0], via Wikimedia Commons