Indian Prairie students learn computer code language

Eighth-grader Benji Lim works on an Android app for his phone during an Hour of Code even Dec. 11, 2013, at Crone Middle School in Naperville. The students learned the basics of computer programming through a variety of computer and non-computer activities. | Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media
Eighth-grader Keanan Ginell create a video game that battles space zombies during an Hour of Code afterschool program at Crone Middle School in Naperville on Dec. 11, 2013. The kids learned the basics of computer programming through a variety of computer and non-computer activities.  | Suzanne Baker ~ Sun-Times Media

Biff needs to collect five power cells. The trouble is, the moon base is filled with zombies that will sap Biff’s health if they touch him.

Who can protect Biff from the zombies and help the spaceman collect the power cells? Enter eighth-grader Keanan Ginell, who armed Biff with laser bombs and other tools to help him on his quest.

Fighting space zombies was just one of the Hour of Code activities hosted by Crone Middle School in Indian Prairie School District 204 as a part of Computer Science Education Week held annually during the week of Dec. 9, the birthday of computer programming pioneer Grace Murray Hopper.

Computer teacher Sandy Knight said computer science provides a foundation for virtually any career, and the basics can be learned by anybody, starting in elementary school.

But fewer than 10 percent of students try, and only 2 percent are women and 1 percent are students of color.

The goal of Hour of Code is to introduce kids to the basics of computer programming so they can continue to add more challenging concepts as they get older. The two-day event at Crone gave students the opportunity to work on their choice of coding activities, including playing an Angry Birds game, creating an animated holiday card, building a personalized online game, creating their own Android app, writing code using JavaScript, or using cups and note cards to work through the process of writing code.

Reaching girls

Keanan was learning how to create his own video game using Tynker. Through Tynker, Keanan was able to use blocks to build the various aspects of the game including background scenes, sounds, characters, scoring and, of course, the different types of weaponry.

While Keanan was battling space zombies, a few computers over sixth-grader Sophia Agupugo was building a tree using programming code. She directed the computer to draw a triangle on the top and a rectangle on the bottom to create her tree. Her efforts took time as she manipulated each point on the triangle to create the right placement on the screen. Improving a child’s critical thinking skills are the benefits of designing with computer code, and Sophia was intently calculating each number she tapped into the computer.

Knight said getting girls involved in computer programming is necessary because the career field is heavily male.

According to U.S. Department of Education 2011 figures, only 7,594 of the 39,589 computer science bachelor’s degrees awarded went to women.

With the help of a step-by-step process created by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, eighth-grader Benji Lim was able to use a coding method to create apps for his Android cell phone. Benji said he plans to use the knowledge about app development in the future.

“I have an idea for an Android app,” said Benji.

Why it’s needed

The Hour of Code was touted by a wide range of people from Ashton Kutcher and Mark Zuckerberg to President Obama. Even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan tweeted a You Tube video where he encourages students, parents and teachers to participate in the Hour of Code.

“The Hour of Code is meant to encourage kids to try coding, to let them see that it can be fun, creative and empowering,” Duncan said.

Beyond improving critical thinking and problem-solving skills, learning computer programming opens the door to many forms of creative expression in a wide range of fields in science, engineering, mathematics, medicine, education and the media arts.

Like most parents, Duncan did not have the opportunity to learn computer skills growing up in school.

“But today most kids will need those skills along with other skills in science, technology and math when they will enter a workforce where they will compete with the best educated young people from everywhere in the world,” he said. “The study of computer science is not just for those wishing to become IT professionals. It’s actually for everyone.”

The Hour of Code is just the start of things to come this school year at Crone Middle School.

After winter break, the school will start a STEAM Team. Knight said the after-school program will encourage students interested in science, technology, engineering, the arts and math to explore activities they want to pursue.

“This will definitely be student-driven,” she said.

Knight’s goal is to spur creativity where the kids can teach other people in the community.

The learning does not just have to take place at school, and parents can get involved, too.

Knight urged families to check out to see the variety of activities that are available to teach basic computer science skills.

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