Coding: The new foreign language

By Jessica Cejnar, The Triplicate December 16, 2013 06:16 pm

Schools introduce students to computer programming

Hundreds of Del Norte students, from third-grade to high school seniors, became computer programmers this week, participating in a nationwide campaign designed to introduce youngsters to the language of coding.

Coinciding with Computer Science Education week, Del Norte County Unified School District Education Technology Coordinator Rae Fearing brought iPads to students at Joe Hamilton, Redwood and Mary Peacock elementary schools this week. 

With Fearing’s help, students used “drag and drop programming” in the form of interconnecting blocks to guide an Angry Bird or zombie through a maze. Students at Smith River School also coded for an hour this week, she said.

Computer Science Education Week is promoted by Code.org, which provides access to tutorials on coding for beginners. The Hour of Code incorporates the video games Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies and features tutorials from Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft giant Bill Gates. The campaign’s goal is to have 10 million kids nationwide participate in one hour of computer coding, Fearing said.

Code.org also provides access to other tutorials, including an introduction to JavaScript and other coding languages such as Python. Students who already know how to code can create computer games and other apps. Code.org even offers “unplugged” coding for folks who don’t have Internet access. 

“These one-hour tutorials are made to be kind of fun, showing kids that they can easily make things on the computer do things,” Fearing said. “It’s turning the tables, so that we can control what a computer does. They’re having to learn how to achieve a goal.”

Fearing said she is encouraging every teacher in the district to do a coding project with his or her students. In her blog, www.edtechyness.blogspot.com, she writes that even though most teachers aren’t coders, they can learn with their kids and share the experience together.

Teaching kids how to build computers and control the content on the Internet is important to a literary society, Fearing said.

“It’s believed that coding is the new foreign language,” she said. “There are schools and countries talking about teaching every student coding just like a foreign language is required to graduate. It is the language of our future.”

At Del Norte High School on Wednesday, Brett Lauble’s students were taught coding from Castle Rock Charter School graduate and former DNHS student Samuel Sanders. Sanders, a software and language engineer for Intel, introduced the teenagers to the coding language Python and helped them create a chat program that allows the computer to ask them questions.

Sanders, who graduated from high school in 2006, started working for Intel in April. He said he was interested in giving back to his former school by showing students how to create a simplified version of the chatbot Eliza. Sanders contacted Lauble in October, who agreed to have him teach his students via Google Hangout.

“(The program) takes user input and echoes it back,” Sanders said, referring to the computer program. “It’s cool seeing how quick they pick it up. Understanding how code works allows them to understand more and more how computerized things in the world work.”

Lauble said he introduced his students to coding via Scratch, an Internet-based program from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that allows people to create interactive stories, games and animations using drag and drop programming. Coding using JavaScript or Python is more complex because the syntax and spelling has to be correct in order for the program to do what you want it to, he said.

“When Samuel contacted me I thought it was a great opportunity for my kids to write real code,” Lauble said. “It lined up perfectly with Computer Science Education Week.”

Lauble thinks students should learn how computer coding works starting at the elementary school level. He used Sanders’ experience as an example. When trying to find a job, Sanders, who had learned coding in college, was competing against other applicants who had started coding when they were 11 or 12 years old, Lauble said.

“He was so far behind even though he started in college,” Lauble said. “Even starting in high school is too late.”

By the time students get to high school, they should already be able to create apps and other computer programs, Lauble said. He pointed out that this is another career path students can take when they graduate from high school.

“What I would hope is that at this age level we’re not teaching beginning coding,” he said. 

Fearing said she’d like to make coding part of a student’s regular curriculum, but it’s so new that many teachers are beginners themselves.

“Some coding should be taught to all students just so they have an understanding of how computers work,” she said. “We have no plans right now to make it a class or required, but we are certainly looking at ways to get kids more involved in computer programming and understanding how computers work.”

Reach Jessica Cejnar at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it