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LCF students try their hand at coding

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By 2020, there will be an estimated 1.4 million computing jobs in the United States, according to the National Center for Women and Information Technology. Unfortunately, there will only be about 400,000 graduating computer science students ready to fill them if schools don't help foster computer literacy now.

Last week La Cañada Unified School District joined millions of people worldwide as it participated in the Hour of Code, a movement designed to better acquaint young people with computer science.

Students tried their hands at coding, taking at least one period of programming throughout Computer Science Week. Teachers and staff helped plan lessons around activities and games offered through code.org, the event's parent organization.

“We wanted to have every single student, from our (transitional kindergarten) classes through the 12th grade, have some kind of exposure to coding,” said Emily Blaney, a technology integrationist for the school district who helped plan some of the lessons. “We're just scratching the surface here.”

On Friday morning at Palm Crest Elementary School, computer lab teacher Jeanine Bentz showed a group of fourth-graders a YouTube video made by President Obama especially for schools participating in the Hour of Code.

“Learning these skills is not just important for your future, it's important for the country's future,” Obama said to a hushed crowd. “Don't just buy a new video game, make one. Don't just download the latest app, help design one.”

After the introductions, students logged on. They sailed through the first few levels of the game “Lost in Space,” clicking and dragging commands into a row of actions spaceman Biff must take to complete a mission. When a new “repeat” command popped up in level 5, students were perplexed.

“There's a repeat block,” Teddy Braun said. “What do you do to repeat?”

He tried a few tacks but couldn't figure out the exact function. A friend in the next chair over, Alex Chang, succeeded and soon became the go-to instructor of the group.

“Alex, can I have some help?” Teddy asked a few levels later.

“Yeah, Alex, I need help, too,” rang in classmate Maggie Bates. Alex obliged.

Occasionally, cries of frustration punctuated the quiet: “This is boring.” “I don't get this one.” “ I'm sick of this,” the children proclaimed. Bentz and Blaney stepped in and offered gentle guidance to encourage students to keep trying.

One key component to the Hour of Code is to allow students to self-direct the lessons and use trial and error to accomplish goals. In computer programming, failure isn't necessarily bad, Bentz told the students.

“You will make mistakes, but that's a good thing — you'll learn from that,” she said.

Parent volunteer Andres Castano, who's run an after-school computer programming class at Palm Crest since last year, said the activities are about much more than mere play.

“Programming is actually a way to learn how to solve problems,” Castano said. “If you see it as a problem-solving strategy, everyone should be programming.”

Over at La Cañada High School, students were busy working away at higher-level exercises offered on code.org. Sophomore Connor Belcher, already enrolled in one of the high school's five computer programming classes, worked with the language program Java. Like Castano, Belcher sees coding as a good way to become a better thinker.

“It develops very good and complex problem-solving skills you can use in any class or environment,” he said.

Fellow sophomores Mairin McQueen and Jack Jones said they'd used technology in classes but had never coded until that Friday. McQueen played a game based on the Angry Birds series, while Jones opted for programming exercises from the nonprofit website Khan Academy.

“A lot of people are intimidated by it,” Jones said of coding. “This gives them that little push to maybe think it's not that bad, that maybe it could be interesting.”

That's exactly the intention behind the district's participation in Computer Science Week, said Jamie Lewsadder, LCUSD's technology program director.

“It was really about awareness and breaking down stereotypes about what computer science is,” she said.

The Hour of Code also seemed to help students realize the value of collaborating to find solutions and trying again when mistakes are made. That's something La Cañada Unified hopes will continue beyond this single event.

“What's so exciting about technology is the voice and power it gives to the kids,” Lewsadder said. “They're really taking charge of their learning through this, right now.” 

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