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January 3, 2014

Modesto-area students dip a digit into programming with Hour of Code

Students in Modesto, Hickman, Ripon and Lathrop peered behind the curtain of technological wizardry during Hour of Code lessons last month. Sixth-graders at Capistrano Elementary found it eye-opening.

Mention computer coding and visions of cubicles spring forth, their whiteboard walls covered with scribbled math symbols. But the workings behind the tech wizardry we all count on provide one of the fastest-growing, best-paying career paths – and lots of elementary students who tried it, liked it.

As school begins Monday, sixth-graders at Capistrano Elementary in east Modesto will be writing code to make shapes move and change their colors – a skill introduced with a nationwide Hour of Code.

High school programming classes include Beyer students making robots and Johansen students creating video games. But the nonprofit wanted to get a wider, younger audience thinking about coding careers during Computer Science Education Week. Its Hour of Code campaign aimed to have 10 million students take a stab at writing basic computer instructions Dec. 9-13.

In the end, 20 million students in 170 countries participated, including teens at Lathrop and Ripon high schools. Hickman Charter School held two-hour Hour of Code workshops led by an Adobe Systems programmer who answered questions after the sessions, said Superintendent Paul Gardner.

Kristi Perrone’s sixth-grade class also plugged in at Capistrano in the Empire Union School District. Perrone said she took on the task with more determination than expertise. “I will admit that I am not a coding expert by any stretch. However, I do want my students to learn a bit about it,” she said.

“My goal is to show my students that they can start learning to code today. They do not have to wait until high school or college,” Perrone said. “I also want them to see that technology is present in most businesses and industries today and we depend on technology and the people who put it all together.”

Since the introductory hour, Perrone had the class try tasks shown in another video on the site. “Once they completed that activity, they could move on on their own and explore the more difficult activities,” she said.

The initial hour hooked kids’ interest, she said, even though most found the hour challenging.

“I think coding is fun – and hard,” said Neil Leecherhoua.

For Anthony Phillips, the hour was inspiring. “I think is one of the best websites that I have ever been on. I want to learn code when I get older, and when I go home I am going to try it again. I did not know what code was until today!” he said.

Less enthused was Adriana Campus. “It was really hard for me, but I am definitely going to practice,” she said.

Cynthia Barrera said it was like learning a new language. “I think code is a fun experience for kids who want to be video game creators and website creators just like me,” she said.

If she follows that career path, she may find herself as in demand as female engineers were a generation ago. Women earn only 12 percent of computer science degrees, notes the site.

Games, puzzles make it fun

Overall, U.S. computing jobs are rising at a rate three times faster than the number of computer science graduates. “The basics can be learned by anybody, starting in elementary school. But fewer than 10 percent of students try,” notes the website, which includes tutorials, Khan Academy videos and celebrity endorsements.

Games and puzzles speed students through the complexities of writing code. A task suitable for very young children uses drag and drop commands to easily program an Angry Bird to move around a maze and catch the pig. Increasingly sophisticated tasks include writing apps for Android devices or iPhones.

The lessons are meant to be done in groups, which improves retention, the website notes. There are also “unplugged” options to learn coding basics without a computer.

“We all depend on technology to communicate, to bank, and none of us know how to read and write code. It’s important for these kids, right now, starting at 8 years old, to read and write code,” says of the Black Eyed Peas on the website.

In another video on the website, Dropbox creator Drew Houston calls coding “the closest thing we have to a superpower.”

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