Computer Science Education Week at Mortensen Elementary

Last week was Computer Science Education Week, an annual program dedicated to inspiring K-12 students to take interest in computer science. Since I volunteer at Mortensen Elementary in the computer lab on a weekly basis and since I have an interest in computer science I decided to help out. I had volunteered to help with last year’s Hour of Code and even set up an Hour of Hardware event at the school in the spring, so I decided to turn it up some this year. Instead of doing one Hour of Code, we did an hour of computer science education after school each day of the week. 43 students participated. Most of them were there more than one day. Here’s how my week went down…

Monday: Holy Crap, What Have I Gotten Myself Into?

On Monday we had 20141209_15300523 kids in the computer lab. We watched the intro video on Code.org and before I could finish telling the students what we were doing, half the kids were already on the Code.org site asking what to do next. Luckily I had 3 other parents there to help me including Chuck Nour, the geekiest parent at the school, and Kim Waldrop who works for Booj, a web development company in Denver, and Ray. I’m not sure what Ray does.

What I Learned: Enthusiastic kids are a lot like those old wind up chattering teeth toys. The more wound up they are, the more likely they’re just gonna take off before you’re ready. It’s great to see such enthusiasm, but to keep it going I had to catch up quick!

Tuesday: Networking and the Awesome Joys of Twisted Pair

20141209_154637Chuck Nour works in IT and he volunteered to introduce the students to networking by having the 21 students build their own CAT5 cables. He explained a little bit about networking concepts before giving each student a 6′ length of CAT5 cable. We had them strip the cable and splay the wires in order so we could crimp ends to the cable. Cutting and crimping cables reminded me of my time in the Marine Corps. I spent 2 days in Yuma, AZ crammed into a windowless closet cutting, splicing and crimping networking cables. It was a great reminder as to why I prefer coding over networking.

What I Learned: Building networking cables for the first time requires a good deal of fine motor skills and patience. Two things that elementary students do not have in abundance are fine motor skills and patience. Next time I want to introduce kids to networking maybe I’ll have them configure a wireless router or do a traceroute on their favorite websites to try to find them on a map. Basically I’ll do anything to avoid building cables again. I think Chuck would agree.

Wednesday: Much Student. Very Wow.

The middle one belongs to me. :)
The middle one belongs to me. 🙂

Wednesday was the biggest turnout with 30 kids! Word was getting around school that this was fun. I had more kids than computers. Lucky for me, kids are naturally friendly folk and agreed to partner up where they could. Also I was the only adult in the room. Lucky for me again, these students enjoy helping each other. At the beginning of our hour I was flustered by having all these kids asking me for help logging into their computers, logging into their Code.org classroom accounts and other questions as well! I finally came up with a system to help the kids I call “I’ll get to you when I get to you” and worked my way around the room. Once that settled down, I noticed a lot more experimentation than tutorial-following. Flappy Code was pretty popular on Wednesday.

What I Learned: When a kid wants help with something it can easily feel like they need help RIGHT NOW but in all honesty they just want to know you’ve heard them and you’re willing to help them. Once I was able to tell them “I’ll help you after I help so-and-so” they were very patient. Kids are kinda awesome.

Thursday: The Kids Are Alright

20141211_162950Thursday I had about 17 kids in the computer lab. I didn’t take roll call so I don’t have an exact count. I think I was still a little shell shocked from Wednesday. Only 1 or 2 students were new to Hour of Code. Most of them new how to log in and what they wanted to do. I only had to help a few students log in at the beginning of the hour. Once I did that I mostly just wondered around the room waiting for someone to ask for help. Part of the fun of programming is getting frustrated and figuring it out so I only help if asked. I saw two boys playing on the CoolMath.com website. When I asked about their code they showed me that they had set up Flappy Code to play itself. They scored a point whenever they passed through an obstacle and were curious how long it would take to get to 1000 points. It took a while. When I announced that it was time to leave, the biggest response I heard was “Awww!” That was kinda awesome.

What I Learned: By Thursday, the students knew more about the tutorials than I did and they were making them their own. Most of the kids did not follow the tutorials straight through. They quickly learned they could choose which tutorials to follow and chose their own adventure. One of the students found the Tynker website. The kids had taken over.

Friday: Fun with Experimentation

20141212_16162021 kids showed up on Friday. It was at least the second day for each kid. Chuck volunteered to show off some computer hardware and disassembled a PC and had the kids help put it back together. However most of the kids wanted to play with their code. Many of the boys spent the whole hour modifying Flappy Bird. A few cracked themselves up making Anna from Frozen zip around the screen drawing shapes. A lot of the girls spent their time playing with the artist tutorials, convincing math to make new patterns. They showed off what they could do on Code.org, Tynker and one student introduced me to Scratch which are all great resources! One of the moms showed up to pick up her son and ended up spending 20 minutes playing with code with her son. That was really cool!

What I Learned: I did not have a lot of structure set up for this week and I’m glad I didn’t. The kids really took over. They may not have completely understood all the concepts but they were happy to play and experiment with the various control structures. It was a blast! They kids were having fun showing off. This was definitely something I would do again next year.

I want to give a huge thank you to the parents and staff of Mortensen Elementary for letting me spend last week with their kids! I’m especially thankful for the Mortensen Elementary Librarian, Mary Sileo who helped set up the sign up for the kids and to Chuck Nour who helped corral the kids.