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Start from scratch with coding

By Nicole Krueger 9/19/2014 STEM Coding

Learning how to use technology prepares students to become expert consumers. Learning how to program technology, however, makes them powerful creators.

Coding is no longer just for students who are interested in a programming career.
Just as pen and paper were integral tools for the information age, coding has become one of the basic building blocks of a digital society — not to mention one of the most relevant and widely applicable STEM subjects to learn. Programming skills give students the power to influence and direct their future.

“All of my students learn to persevere, to not be afraid of making a mistake and to enjoy a challenge,” said teacher Deb Smith. “Their sense of accomplishment is priceless.”

Since only one in 10 schools offer computer programming classes, bringing coding into the classroom often means teachers must start from scratch. So we asked educators to offer their best tips for getting started. Here’s what they said:

Start small and build from there.

For many educators, teaching coding means learning it alongside their students. That was the case for Christy Novack, who recently started an intro to coding class at her middle school. She found Codeacademy’s tutorials helpful for getting her own feet wet.

“I hemmed and hawed about how to approach it,” she said. “Do I teach fundamentals? What programs do I use? I ended up having to choose one program for now for the sake of my own focus and learning.”

Her colleagues suggested object-oriented programming as an entry point, so she chose Scratch to start with and will use Alice for students who are ready to advance to the next level.

Web programming makes another good entry point for developing an understanding of how software works. Not all students will warm to object-oriented programming, but most learners love to get hands-on by building websites. Teacher Melissa Wrenchey starts her students on light programming — HTML with CSS — and then uses Processing.org to build on those principles.

Provide a pathway for advanced students.

Many kids take to coding naturally and will rapidly progress beyond the basics. Be prepared to provide advanced students with new avenues for continuing their development.

“I started with the basics of Scratch with third graders. Once they got their feet wet, many of them wanted more,” said teacher Lyne Motylinski. She divided her students into groups and allowed them to choose a project — from simple animations to choose-your-own adventure stories to video games.

“Once they started, I taught skills to groups as needed, and often they would then teach each other,” she said.

Other ideas:

  • Start a computer club for those who want to progress beyond the class lessons, suggests Harry Keller, president of Smart Science Education Inc.
  • Team students up and have them tackle the computing problems at CodeChef, says technology director John Faig.
  • Think outside the classroom by guiding students to coding camps, competitions or online courses.

Tackle real-world problems.

Like any other skill, coding becomes more relevant when kids are able to use it in a way that’s meaningful to them.

Teacher Douglas Kiang guides his students toward creating apps that serve their community in some way. For example, one of his students worked with a parent to develop an app that teaches autistic kids to count. It’s now used by teachers and schools to help children across the autism spectrum.

“My kids learn how to code, but many of my students learn a more enduring lesson about making connections with others to find ways that their coding skills can make a difference in their community,” he said. “That is the most valuable lesson of all.”

Try it for an hour.

Don’t feel like you have time for coding in the classroom? Spend just one hour helping students learning to code, and see what happens.

Amanda Pressly contributed to this post.

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