MAHOPAC, N.Y.— The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that by 2020 there will be 1.4 million computer-science-related jobs available and only 400,000 computer science graduates with the skills to apply for them.
The Mahopac Central School District hopes to change that. School officials believe that getting to students at an early age and teaching them the basics of computer science—especially coding (programming a computer and showing it what to do)—has become as vital as other educational basics such as reading, writing and arithmetic.
Last month, schools across the nation marked National Computer Science Education Week, in which schools were encouraged to emphasize improving students’ computer skills. The week featured the annual worldwide Hour of Code, which was created by the nonprofit group, Code.org. According to Code.org, the Hour of Code campaign has engaged 10 percent of all students in the world, and provides the leading curriculum for K-12 computer science in some of the largest school districts in the United States. For the Hour of Code, Mahopac schools were one of the nation’s school districts that set aside one hour during Computer Science Education Week to focus on teaching students about code: what it is and how to write it.
While Mahopac students throughout the district engaged in the Hour of Code, an emphasis was placed on the elementary schools, grades K-5. Elementary technology coordinator John Sebalos coordinated the classes with teachers throughout the Austin, Fulmar, and Lakeview schools.
“This is one of the most ambitious [Day of Codes in the region] and we want 100 percent saturation,” Sebalos said. “And we want to give them a choice [in what and how it will be taught].”
Teachers in grades K-5 throughout the district were give options for their Day of Code lessons. They could choose an online activity on code.org, engage in an “unplugged” activity that didn’t involve technology, or employ a lesson using Ozobots, little robots that helped students learn to write some basic code.
Austin Road first graders in a class taught by Lisa Lapadula, Laura Scampoli, and Virginia Bondi learned how to command the Ozobots to change direction and speeds by creating thick lines on paper using different colored pens. The lines and the colors dictated exactly how each little robot behaved.
“This is new for us too,” Lapadula said. “It’s great because we are learning with them.”
At Lakeview Elementary, Jenn Borst’s special ed class of third, fourth and fifth graders also used the Ozobots.
“See how engaged they are,” Sebalos said, nodding at the roomful of clearly excited students.
Borst explained that the Ozobots recognize the different colors on the paper, which prompted them to go faster or slower or even spin around.
“It’s really cool,” she said.
There was one particular thing Borst noticed about her class of first-time coders.
“My highest achievers of getting the codes done first was girls,” she said. “I was so excited.”
The Ozobots were donated by the elementary schools’ respective PTOs. Lakeview’s PTO provided 72 of the little robots, enough for four classrooms.
At Austin Road, the third-grade class instructed by Kerri Bilyeu and Kristin Voorhis explored Code.org in a Minecraft-themed exercise. Building technology leader Trish Huestis demonstrated how to create movement commands through blocks of text.
At Lakeview, Maureen Tighe’s third-grade class went to Code.org and used the popular game Angry Birds to learn how to create code that would make the angry bird move through a grid.
“It is absolutely fabulous,” Tighe said. “These kids are like sponges. They pick it up so quickly. They have no fear of the computer.”
Austin Road fourth-grade teacher Carolyn Ryan used images on code.org with a “Star Wars”-themed lesson.
“Instead of writing out, ‘move one square,’ the kids can shorten it by using images like a star to fill in a block while giving a motion command,” Sebalos explained. “Shortening what you are doing is a computer science premise.”
But Sebalos noted that while teaching code-writing certainly bolsters the students’ computer science skills, what they learn in these classes has applications far beyond the digital world
“The skills that the students learn here are not just about programming,” Sebalos said. “Aspects such as problem-solving, analytical thinking and many other skills can be applied to other curricular areas.”
One of those areas is geography. Susan Downey’s Austin Road fourth-grade class programmed the Ozobots to perform actions on a map of New York State. Each student crafted a map of the state and controlled their Ozobots to move throughout the Hudson River Valley and the Adirondack Mountains.
Austin Road principal James Gardineer said he was excited about the opportunities that Computer Science Education Week and, in particular, the Hour of Code, provided the students.
“We are very excited about all of the unique learning opportunities that our students were exposed to,” he said. “I find it simply amazing how capable even our youngest students are when it comes to technology. I must recognize our faculty, and John Sebalos for all their hard work in making this possible.”