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‘Day of Code’ exposes Kyrene kids to computer science fundamentals

The Kyrene del Milenio Elementary fifth-graders huddled in pairs over laptops and notebooks, creating movements of figures on the screen from popular games like Minecraft or games based on popular Disney movies like “Muano.”

At one table, Isaac Lehman was “the driver” who moved coding on the screen on the advice of the “navigator,” classmate Ngiratudelei Tellames.

The youngsters and the rest of the Ahwatukee school’s student body, from kindergarten through fifth grade, as well as all other schools throughout the Kyrene District were participating last week in the international Day of Code.

It’s part of a program by the nonprofit code.org to push for computer science courses throughout K-12 across the country as well as overseas.

“Computing occupations are the number one source of all new wages in the U.S. and make up two-thirds of all projected new jobs in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields,” code.org states on its website.

Yet, while this would make computer science “one of the most in-demand college degrees” in the country, the organization said it’s “marginalized throughout education.”

“Fewer than half of U.S. schools offer any computer science courses and only 8 percent of STEM graduates study it.”

In Arizona, for example, more than 9,600 computer jobs were vacant. On average, they paid $85,000 annually, close to twice the state’s average annual salary of $45,000.

Yet, only 484 college graduates in 2014 majored in computer science, only 438 high school students took the advanced placement computer science exam this year, and only 42 schools offered that course in the last school year.

Arizona has no state plan for K-12 computer science education or standards, no dedicated computer science positions to set policies for either K-12 or universities and no computer science requirement for high school graduation.

Even though the Milenio students and their peers throughout the district might not be nearly old enough to consider a career, Kyrene educators said the code-writing exercises just don’t expose them to a possible field of study to prepare for a job in later life.

“They are learning skills that just don’t apply to the classroom but to life,” said Jen Ignacio, a teacher specialist with Kyrene’s office of curriculum and learning services.

“The fundamental skills in computer science include critical thinking, perseverance, problem-solving and creativity,” Ignacio said.

Of course, there was a hope that the Day of Code might instill the spark of a career interest.

That’s why professional computer programmer Anthony Silva volunteered to help the fifth graders as they worked through their task.

“I wish I had had something like this when I was their age,” said Silva. “I would have found out earlier in life what I wanted to do for a living. didn’t get expose to code until I was in college, and then I changed my major and took up computer science.”

The students did not have to compose long series of letters and numerals like Silva and other programmers do for a living.

Instead, they were tasked with the assignment of creating the moves that game characters had to perform to achieve a goal, dragging and dropping directions until they created a fluid movement of a character on the screen.

But before they even started, they watched a video telling them about the roles of navigator and driver, carefully explaining that the navigator’s job “is to consider questions and offer suggestions and not be a boss.”

Milenio librarian Heather Buck, a former teacher for 19 years, said she had been overseeing sessions all week and was “very impressed the students are so quick to pick up the code.”

“I would have to sit and think it through,” Buck added, noting, “Of course, the children have grown up with technology. It’s second nature to them.”

Ignacio said she’s surprised that even the younger students seem more advanced than their teachers when it comes to familiarity with the latest technology.

Sometimes too advanced.

First grade teacher Andrea Hunter had to teach her class how to use a mouse and a keyboard.

“They’re so used to touch screens that they struggled with the keyboard and mouse, especially the mouse,” Hunter said. “They’re very savvy. We’re a technologically advanced district and we’re still behind the kids.

“It’s been a learning experience for us,” she added.

Kindergartners didn’t go online.

Instead, they sat in a semicircle around a large rug that was decorated with alphabet squares. The group learn a series of hand signs to indicate when to move and in what direction.

Then, while one student hid from the group, the others decided what square to place facedown a card that said “yea.” Then the student was called out of hiding and had to follow the group as it made hand signs directing him or her to move in different directions across several squares until she reached the one with the card.

They then built on this lesson on paper, using small pieces of paper with arrows on them to show what direction they would move a character on a sheet of paper containing a grid.

District spokeswoman Nancy Dudenhoefer said Kyrene students have become more advanced in technology as the result of voter approval of a budget override a few days ago that brought more equipment and technical instruction to kids at all grade levels.

Code.org would approve, given its ultimate goal:

“We can do better than simple technology literacy. We can make kids creators of technology.”

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