Appleby's Family Code Night Aims To Broaden Appeal Of Computer Programming

First grader Paolo Aiello (left) works with his sister Adriana at Appleby's Family Coding Night as mom Rose Marie Aiello watches. Credits: Dawn Miller
Steve Snyder works with his son Brandon at Appleby's first Family Coding Night on March 14. Credits: Dawn Miller
Twenty-six families came out for Appleby Elementary School's Family Code Night. Credits: Dawn Miller

SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Appleby Elementary School's first Family Code Night hit the ground running in the school's all-purpose room on Wednesday. Sign-up was so popular, Computer teacher Paige Bestoff and Principal Nancy Torchiano had to turn people away. More than 150 people signed up for the March 14 coding night. However, the pair decided to limit the inaugural coding event to 26 families. In the future, the school is planning on extending the numbers as well as the coding activities.

So, what is all the fuss about coding? Bestoff touched on the definition in her opening remarks to the eager audience. Basically, coding is a list of instructions a programmer creates to tell the computer what to do.

"If we translate the recipe or algorithm that's in our head into a language the computer understands," Spotswood High School Business, Vocational and Technical Education teacher Gary Hull explained. "That's computer programming."

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The goal of Family-Code Night is simple; to show coding is for everyone. Typically, computer science is a male dominated field. An Hour of Code is a nationwide initiative aimed at encouraging diversity in the programming field.

"What they have found," Hull continued. "Is the earlier you introduce this (programming), the greater the uptake and the less you have dropout in the future. We have a huge problem with the lack of women and underrepresented minorities in computer science and they've found that one of the reasons is that it's not introduced early enough. Already by eighth grade, the stereotypes have formed. We hope to introduce it as early as possible and let everyone know they can be a programmer if they want."

Hull went on to explain that by 2020 there will be more than 1 million jobs available in the field of computer science and not nearly enough qualified applicants to fill them.

"It's all about equity," Hull said. "So the idea that everybody can be a programmer carries through and you no longer have that stereotype because everyone feels innately that they have that gift inside of them."

"What's the worst that can happen," the veteran educator said with a smile. "They will find out they don't like it."

Appleby families were divided into teams of two with each person exchanging the role of driver and navigator. The driver was in charge of the keyboard and mouse while the navigator read the instructions. Both the driver and navigator worked together to solve the puzzles, which became more challenging as the activity wore on. Bestoff and Hull would stop the teams every five minutes for Tip Time. Tip Time introduced six of the "big ideas" of coding. In addition to Bestoff and Hull, Torchiano and Schoenly School Principal Jennifer Asprocolas as well as three Spotswood School District students were on hand to assist the teams.

"The best part of this," Bestoff said of Family Code Night. "Is that we get the parents involved. The students learn coding in class, but we want the parents to support that. We want the students to be able to go home and instead of playing video games, we want the parents to encourage them to actually create their own video games."

Spotswood School District students begin to learn coding in second grade. The program initially began with enrichment students, but now encompasses the entire second through fifth grade school and continues into the Memorial Middle School with the computer class sixth, seventh and eighth grade students take for one marking period.

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy is on board with expanding the reach of computer science with his "Computer Science For All" initiative, addressing the issue in his recent budget address on March 13.

The Spotswood School District will host their third annual STEAM Camp August 20 through August 24. The camp is open to students entering second through eighth grade this summer and incorporates science, technology, engineering, art and math activities. Hull and Bestoff are two of the camp's instructors along with Spotswood High School teachers Martin Dempsey and Andrew Zaborney. Coding will be a part of this summer's STEAM Camp that will also feature Mission to Mars theme.


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