YORKTOWN HEIGHTS, N.Y.— For almost 15 years, educators and parents have been trying to provide students with the 21st century skills that will be required of the next generation of professionals. The most difficult of these skills, to teach and to acquire, are critical thinking and collaboration. What better way to help students gain these skills than by using the skill that is already known to be a part of their nature: digital literacy.

Last month, the students of St. Patrick’s School in Yorktown Heights joined the global “Hour of Code” movement. Under the guidance of the school’s computer technology teacher, Jennifer Vespucci, every student in grades kindergarten through eighth had the opportunity to learn the basics of computer programming. Even the pre-K students got their turn at coding with their new Code-a-Pillar, which teaches problem solving, cause and effect, and directions through a cute little robotic caterpillar.

To Vespucci, the decision to introduce code to her students was easy.

Sign Up for E-News

“Exposing our students, at such a young age (and especially the girls), to the world of coding and computer science truly empowers them,” she said. “It not only makes them aware of how the games they love work, but it teaches them that they, too, can be creators and not just consumers.”

Since today’s students are already consumed by technology, introducing coding skills is a natural progression. Vespucci added, “It doesn’t matter what career choice they make because technology is going to be a part of their choice in one way or another and if they have an idea about improving something in their life or have an idea about creating something new, they can tackle these challenges head on and not wait for someone else to do the work.”

While the students were creating their games of MineCraft, Angry Birds and Moana, their homeroom teachers were also busy using their new understanding of Blockly (the coding language used by Code.org) to make their own animations complete the desired tasks of the games. Joseph Candarelli, grades 6-8 social studies teacher, noted, “The most impressive part of the experience to me as a middle school teacher was seeing how adept our lower grade students have become at coding. Their ability to navigate through concepts in order to solve problems with code was remarkable.”

This is the heart of the coding lessons at St. Patrick’s School. By encouraging students to be comfortable with various code languages, they are not only preparing themselves for the computer programming literacy expectations that will inevitably be part of many future careers, but they are forced to persevere, think critically and collaborate with their peers—skills that are transferrable to all careers.

To further enhance the code experience and promote collaboration and communication (two critical 21st century skills), Vespucci had most of the upper grades pair up with lower grade students. The rationale was that by pairing older classes (eighth with kindergarten and fourth with second), younger students were able to take part in coding games that were a bit too difficult for them on their own.

“Watching their expressions as they solved a problem and made their characters walk, talk, flap and in some cases, explode was remarkable,” Vespucci reflected.

AnnMarie Bauer, the fourth grade teacher, added, “Since they worked in teams of two, it helped them work on cooperatively learning and learning to take each other’s advice.”

Although the students had been introduced to code earlier this year, the participation in the Hour of Code helped to spread parent awareness of the program, increase the enthusiasm and comfort in learning other code languages, and showed the teachers how they can use code to enhance their lessons in any of the core subjects.

Christine Wedvik, first grade teacher said, “This (code) fits in all aspects of teaching especially: problem solving, self-correcting errors, critical thinking, analytical thinking, working collaboratively with others, communication skills, spatial concepts.”

The incorporation of core content, digital literacy, problem solving and collaboration are the key aspects of 21st century skills, all made possible by bringing code to computer science classes in elementary schools.

Darlene Del Vecchio is principal of St. Patrick’s School.