Howard County schools spotlight computer science in Hour of Code event

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In school systems across the country, including Howard County, teachers are infusing daily lessons with computer skills to provide students with a foundation of technical knowledge from a young age.

These lessons and skills were highlighted this week as Howard schools participated in the global Hour of Code event, which provides participants of all ages and skill levels with tutorials to learn coding.

The world-wide event is held in more than 180 countries, and provides tutorials in 45 languages. This is the county’s fourth year of participating in the event, which takes place during Computer Science Education Week.

“This week is very important because one of our goals is to increase computer science awareness and increase enrollment in courses that are offered in high school in computer science,” said Julie Alonso-Hughes, the county’s coordinator for the Office of Instructional Technology.

The county offers five computer programming courses at the high school level: designing technology solutions, principles of computer science, Advanced Placement computer science, advanced object-oriented design and advanced data structures.

As part of the Hour of Code event, every class in the county spent an hour focused on computer science skills. Many classes, including those at Guilford Elementary School, incorporated the Hour of Code tutorials into the curriculum for their weekly technology classes.

On Wednesday morning, Guilford technology teacher Tim Incavido led fifth-grade students in activities to create their own basketball game simulations using block coding. Incavido said students in third through fifth grade begin with block coding, and work their way up to using Javascript, the coding script language for building websites.

Incavido is one of many teachers in Howard County who started out teaching a different subject but became a technology teacher. Incavido said he was a fourth- and fifth-grade classroom teacher, but six years ago was asked to become the school’s technology teacher.

To prep for the new role, Incavido spent a summer training in coding and technology skills, and said he continues to learn as much as he can to have the knowledge to teach students.

As the desire for computer science and technology classes continues to grow, Alonso-Hughes said the county has identified hiring additional technology teachers as a “critical need.” She said the county is addressing this need by hiring specialty staff to teach the courses and training teachers like Incavido to transition into the roles.

Fifth-grader Meera Nayapulli, 10, was one of the students in Incavido’s Wednesday class excelling at the activities. Nayapulli has advanced to using Javascript, one of a handful of students to do so already, according to Incavido.

“I like that [coding is] about trial and error,” Meera said. “Seeing it all come together is amazing in coding.”

Meera said she was interested in a future career as an engineer, using computer science to build digital models of houses.

That interest in computer science among young girls is exactly what the county would like to foster, Alonso-Hughes said, to help lessen the gender disparity among computer science students and professionals. In 2015, women earned only 18 percent of all computer science degrees in the nation, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

Last week, the county signed a formal partnership with How Girls Code, a local organization that provides computer science education to young girls. While the county has worked with How Girls Code for several years, the new partnership allows five elementary schools to offer courses to students for free.

This fall, How Girls Code offered after-school courses at nine Howard County elementary schools for girls in third through fifth grade.

Across all of its students, the county is emphasizing the importance of knowing how to utilize computer science to be prepared for the workforce of the future. Interim Superintendent Michael Martirano, who visited Incavido’s class on Wednesday, spoke with students about the need to know computer skills for work and daily life.

During the class, Elijah Brown, 10, raised his hand to help explain the basketball coding tutorial to Martirano. Brown told him about how the activity focused on writing scripts to simulate different motions and sounds of the game.

Brown said he liked that through coding, he was able to choose what happened in the game. He said he was interested in a possible career as a technician.

“Instead of playing somebody else’s game, you get to make your own,” he said. “I love to be in technology.”

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