Our modern world is powered by computers. Everything from our basic utilities to our cameras, phones, and toys operate with the help of automation and computation. As our needs for sophisticated computing grow, so will the need for a workforce that can push the capabilities of our computers, from our smartphones, to the world’s largest supercomputers. To celebrate Computer Science and encourage the next generation of thinkers and doers, there is an annual event called Computer Science Education Week – where educators and technologists join forces to introduce coding to kids. This year, it was December 3rd-9th and Macro Connect joined in as usual by running several “Hour of Code” events where we put the “fun” in the “fundamentals” of Computer Science.

Hour of Code

The headline element of Computer Science Education Week is called Hour of Code. The Hour of Code program encourages students and teachers to spend just sixty minutes learning about computer coding. It’s become a global phenomenon. Since Hour of Code began a few years ago, over 100 Million students have tried an Hour of Code, logging more than 600 Million hours. And there are already over 220,000 events around the world registered for 2019. Hour of Code teaches students the fundamentals of coding and lets them jump right in and try it out through self-paced, culturally and age-appropriate online modules.

Isn’t Coding Complicated?

That might sound a little crazy, boring, or complicated, just jumping into computer coding. But it doesn’t mean typing out lines of seemingly nonsensical computer language. Computer coding at its most basic level is writing out instructions for your technology. You’d be surprised how fun it can be. Whether it’s teaching a “Fuzz” how to navigate a maze, making an Angry Bird smash the piggies, or guiding a drone to collect presents for the Grinch, coding starts with writing out a list of commands and then watching your program follow them.

What Does a Macro Connect Hour of Code Look Like?

For example, during the 2018 Computer Science Education Week, the Macro Connect team spent two days running Hour of Code at a Detroit-area K-8 campus. The first day was for 5th-8th grade classes and the second day was for K-4th grade classes. For most students, it was the first time they had ever touched code or written a computer program. Teachers also got in on the action, coding right alongside their students. Each hour began with a brief overview of what computer science is and why coding languages will power our futures. Then we jumped into an age-appropriate exercise from the Code.org library. You can check them out for yourself here, but we’ll talk more about the ones we used below.

Starting With Fundamentals

To many, coding syntax looks like extremely complex gibberish. But so does calculus to a new math student. That’s why we start with the basics like numbers and counting, before moving on to arithmetic, geometry, algebra, and trigonometry. Only after years of study are you ready for the really complicated stuff. The same goes for learning Spanish. You can’t just drop someone off in Mexico City and expect them to speak the language. We start with “Hola” and “Adios” and then learn more vocabulary and grammar over time with lots of practice. It’s the same with coding. Start with the building blocks and then learn the language of code and the techniques over years of practice and study.

It’s All About Logic

As we mentioned before, coding is, at its most basic, a list of instructions. A machine can’t know anything on its own. It’s just a hunk of plastic and metal. But if you give it instructions, it can do incredible things! To work property, those instructions require a certain order. “Turn right, move forward one space, turn left” gets a different result than “Turn left, move forward once space, turn right.” To achieve the desired outcome, students must first learn how to think like a computer and apply logic to solve problems like a computer. The tutorials we used for our Hour of Code events helped the students start developing those skills.

K-1st Grade: Kodable Fuzzes

For our very youngest students, we used a game called “Kodable Fuzzes.” In this game, students must help an adorable little fuzzy creature navigate a maze to collect stars and reach the exit. They had to look at the shape of the maze, see where the stars were located, and figure out which direction to send the Fuzz, and in which order it must follow those directions. This arrow-based set of instructions is a simple but effective list of commands for a computer program. Once they thought they had the right “code,” they ran their “program” to see if it worked! If it did, they went on to the next level with a more complicated maze. If not, they had to find the “bug” that made things go wrong, fix it, and try again.

2nd-4th Grade: Angry Birds & Ice Age

Slightly older students were ready for a little more advanced thinking, so we introduced them to block-based coding. In the Angry Birds tutorial, while we started with the basics like moving and turning, we introduced more complicated ideas like automated loops. In a loop, instructions can be packaged together and repeated as a group a specified number of times. We also introduced ideas like “repeat until” where the loop would be repeated but only until a certain goal was achieved. Some of the puzzles even challenged them to limit the number of instructions they used to be efficient with their coding. That’s an important concept no matter what your level of coding skill. It was fun to see them step back and think critically about the problem at hand. Then when they had solved it using visual blocks, they could see how their instructions translated into JavaScript, a common text-based coding language.

5th-8th Grade: The Grinch

Our oldest students worked with drones and sleds in a Grinch game. Ok, not actual drones! But they programed a drone flight path that helped gather presents and keyboard controls that triggered a variety of actions like speed up, slow down, jump, bark, and throw snowballs. These live controls showed them a more interactive side of computer programing that connects the user with the computer in real time. It’s the same stuff programmers use to create the games they love so much. We had a great time watching them draw the connection between the code and the kinds of controls they use every day. Now we know that every time they play a game that involves, running, jumping, or throwing, they’ll understand how the developer created it.

Taking Things to The Next Level

Everyone had a lot of fun, but you could tell some students got the hang of it really fast. After they finished the tutorials provided, a few students moved on to some more complex coding challenges. A few even started to write using text-based code. And that’s what Hour of Code and Computer Science Education Week are all about: Showing students the basics of coding using fun, visual-based games, and inspiring them to move on to more complex and, ultimately, more rewarding challenges. The world is going to need a lot of skilled coders in the years ahead. We hope that this year’s Hour of Code events put a few more students on the path to a career in Computer Science.

Code to Compose

Learning to code isn’t limited to Computer Science Education Week or the Hour of Code program. Macro Connect has its own unique coding introduction program called Code to Compose (C2C), that introduces young people to the world of computer programming by allowing them to create their own original music. C2C strives to bridge the gap between the arts and sciences by emphasizing creativity, collaboration, and fun!

The curriculum is built around a computer application called Sonic Pi that translates code written in the Ruby programming language into awesome music. Students begin in their workbooks by gaining familiarity with Sonic Pi, transposing common melodies, gradually learning increasingly advanced coding commands, and ultimately composing their own original piece of music for their final project!

With C2C, students are allowed (and often encouraged) to make mistakes in a project-based learning framework. The exercises and knowledge checks are open ended and there’s rarely a single correct answer. As a result, students feel like their work is truly their own – something they can take pride in.

Ask us about running a Code to Compose program at your school!