LIVINGSTON, NJ — “Do you want to build a snowman?” was a funny question for a week when temperatures reached 50 degrees, yet sixth graders in Livingston tested a way to do just that. They did it with code, working on Lenovo laptops and using drag-and-drop programming to roll and stack snowballs.
Bringing old Frosty to life with the ellipse command proved as difficult as building a snowman on a warm, December day. Tech coach Mitch Wasserman encouraged a math class to keep trying.
“It is a challenge," he said. "Let's figure it out together."
The creating happened during The Hour of Code, a nationwide initiative by Computer Science Education Week and Code.org to introduce students to one hour of computer science and computer programming.
This was part of efforts to raise awareness about the rapidly expanding and increasingly important field of coding — the art of telling a computer how to perform complex tasks — and as Hour of Code organizers put it, to “demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics.”
“Hey look,” one of the Mt. Pleasant Middle sixth graders said near the end of class. “I’m getting so much better at this.”
"The excitement has been unreal," said Hillside Principal Carlos Gramata.
Across the globe,10-million students took part in Hour of Code. With the district’s purchases over the past two years of Chromebooks in the elementary schools and Lenovo laptops in the upper grades, more students than ever before participated in this year’s Hour of Code, which in Livingston stretched throughout the week.
Livingston is moving forward on a plan to increase its investment in educational technology. The district’s tech committee has recommended 1:1 computing in the upper grades and 2:1 student to device in the elementary schools and sixth grade. (Learn more by clicking HERE).
It’s part of the push in classrooms and the aim of professional development to teach 21st-century skills in the 21st-century context.
Teachers and principals have been blogging throughout the week about the coding activities taking place at schools. Many collaborated with Wasserman and Ellen Fishter, Elementary Technology Integration Consultant, on lesson plans, and have posted links on their webpages for students to continue the coding experience at home. (Read their entries by clicking HERE.)
Lessons began with explanations for beginners: People write code, code powers computers and computers power many everyday objects like phones, watches, microwaves and cars.
“There’s coding everywhere,” Nazar Pshenov, a fourth grader at Mt. Pleasant Elementary, explained to his first-grade buddy.
“The children initially had no idea what coding was,” said Shelly Li, a third-grade teacher at Mt. Pleasant Elementary School. “But when put into the context of their daily lives and providing them a hands-on kid friendly experience with it, they grew to absolutely love it.”
From the earliest grades on, computational thinking teaches students how to tackle large problems by breaking them down into a sequence of smaller, more manageable problems.
Take Disney’s “Frozen” tutorial on Code.org, which introduced first graders at Mt. Pleasant Elementary to basic coding concepts like loops and conditionals.
“It looks like you’re playing a game,” said Lenore Piccoli, the schools’ media specialist, “but you’ll be following very specific instructions.”
The experience was enhanced by the fourth graders who worked one-on-one with the young learners to teach them the basics of code on Chromebooks. The older students proved patient teachers, helping their first grade-buddies code “Frozen”-themed puzzles.
There are a lot of coding tutorials out there, and students tried a variety. We watched boys swerve and dodge their way to victory in Code Car Chaos, a Hot Wheels racing game. After solving a few problems, a first grader asked his fourth-grade buddy to let him try on his own.
“Wait, I think I know how,” he said. “We’re doing really good.”
Kindergarteners also tapped into this introduction to computer science to begin to learn the logic behind the code. Things like “sequence of events” and conditional statements like “If this is true, that will happen.” At Hillside, the students used an app called Kodable that allowed the young iPad users to drag and drop to solve problems.
“At first it was very easy, but each puzzle became progressively harder,” said Kristen Schultz, a first-grade teacher at Hillside Elementary. “Students had to backtrack to fix their mistakes in order to create the correct code."
Along with coding objectives, observed Harrison Principal Cindy Healy, “these activities also help to develop life-skills such as grit, determination, problem-solving, and perseverance.”
Students in Dana Wallock’s third-grade class at Hillside said learning to code has changed the way they think about playing video games and using the computer.
“The best part of the lesson was watching every student in my class participate with a language they could all understand,” she said.
At Harrison and Burnet Hill, kindergarten used Bee-Bot, a robot designed for use by young children, to teach sequencing, estimation, and problem solving.
“It was fantastic how quickly the kids got,” said Sharon Edelberg, the media specialist at Burnet Hill. “They used the commands forward, turn right and turn left so easily. They created a code with more than 30 commands.”
Once an individual knows how to code, he or she can create virtual worlds within the computer where the only limit on what is possible is your imagination, Hour of Code advisers said.
At the middle school, students looked at how many lines of code were needed for the video games they play and the apps they use on their phones and computers. Using applications provided by Kahn Academy, a not-for-profit website offers free instructional videos, students created shapes, lines and colors using computer coding techniques, said Lily Siegel, a mathematics/science/social studies teacher at Mt. Pleasant Middle.
In John Tees’ Business Education classroom, Mt. Pleasant Middle students built a galaxy with code. Students programmed droids to create their own Star Wars. They also learned more on Code.org about the making of “The Force Awakens” and the hundreds of computer engineers who worked on the film. In a school computer lab, students used drag-drop boxes to move the film’s BB-8 droid through a space mission. Their results were celebrated: Tees presented each student with a certificate celebrating their Hour of Code.
"What I loved most about the experience was that it excited all minds," said Laura Dugan, a third-grade teacher at Hillside.
If you can create technology, the students were told, you can change the world.
"I used to think coding was something really boring and that there was no fun in it, but now I think coding can be very fun,” one of the Hillside third graders wrote their teacher. “I am eager to start searching for a way to code my own game."
At Livingston High School, members of the world-ranked Lancers Robotics team code all the time.
“But the Hour of Code is very special as it motivates everyone to branch out and investigate STEM subjects,” said the team’s co-captain Olivia Yao. “With global initiatives like the Hour of Code, hopefully more people in younger generations will become interested in and pursue engineering.”
And it isn’t just for tech wizards.
In an unusual twist to Hour of Code, Harrison physical education classes went high-tech with “unplugged” programming activities. Physical education teacher Daniel Russak and music teacher Michele Matten teamed up for classes that combined rhythm and games. With the gym pulsing with upbeat music, stations were set up for kids to dribble, jump rope and hula-hoop.
On percussion instruments, kids counted the beats, playing musical patterns. For Hour of Code, two special stations were set up for algorithms, where students provided the directional language to help their peers navigate mazes on the musical and sports motifs.
At Collins, kindergarten students also learned about coding and how it can be used for solving everyday digital problems in gym class. It involves cooperation and teamwork, perfect concepts that also connect to our Physical Education curriculum, said teacher Christopher Purdue.
“We connected the physical movement to solving the problem. Rather than using digital technology we used our bodies to carry out actions,” Purdue said. Students followed verbal commands of basic dance steps—left, right, back, forward and jump—and solved a problem called “Return the Penguin to its Igloo."
Students followed coding commands to navigate through the North Pole’s home in the Collins gym.
Like building a snowman on a sunny day, students found that learning to code is not easy. It requires breaking down tasks into a logical sequence of smaller steps. But whether on a dance floor, with robot or iPad, it’s something Livingston schools demonstrated can be taught as early as kindergarten. For the older students, they discovered technology doesn’t always work out the way they want. But by taking the skills of coding to analyze what went wrong, they will learn to invent new approaches when the first inevitably fails … or their snowman melts away.