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Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Hour (or six) of Code

For this year's Computer Science Education Week, Code.org, a nonprofit organization that promotes and supports students' access to computer programming education and resources, put together an initiative to get lots of kids and educators to do an hour of coding. At home, after taking a graduate class in Android App programming for educators (which was fun, frustrating, and humbling) using MIT's AppInventor, I tried out their programming site for a younger audience, Scratch, on my 8-year-old daughter. She was immediately hooked. The ability to "see inside" other programmer's projects and remix them is a great way to learn by trial and error what different types of code do. Using Code.org's progressive tutorials, however, grew her conceptual understanding by leaps and bounds. I lifted the screen time limit, and she worked through the stages off and on over a large part of a Saturday (with breaks for playing in the snow and painting). Because the programs are similar, she's easily able to transfer her understanding and mathematical thinking from one program to another. I kind of wish I'd gone through them myself before trying the more complicated AppInventor tutorials for my class. Here are a few things I observed watching an eight year old code:
My daughter is in third grade, and hasn't learned degrees of angles in geometry yet. She now knows that a straight line is 180 degrees, a circle is 360 degrees, a right angle is 90 degrees and you can split it by half into 45 degrees. (And she knows what those look like.) She also learned that if she repeats a sequence like a line being drawn by having the center point rotate a few degrees and repeat she can create patterns, and change them by varying the degrees of the angles. Pretty cool considering when she started that morning she didn't know what angles were.
Most of the new math concepts she learned, she learned by a little explanation, a little modeling, a problem that was given to her, and unlimited time to try and fail repeatedly (and safely) until she succeeded. There was never a test, just a chance for her to solve the problem given a set of tools and as much time and as many attempts as she needed. And I was there to coach her a little if she needed some help.
Ultimately, because she was doing the work, and going through the process of trying, failing, and figuring things out primarily on her own, she was highly motivated to continue working. Watching her satisfaction as she learned new things was satisfying for me. And even if she never goes beyond moving a zombie around on a screen, the math she's learning will be invaluable.