Academy District 20 high school takes gaming approach to teach computer coding

By Debbie Kelley Updated: December 12, 2013 at 5:32 pm • Published: December 12, 2013 | 9:20 am 0

Lisa Bejarano's first-period geometry class seemed like all fun and games Wednesday, but it was actually pretty serious stuff.

Students at Aspen Valley High School played a computer game involving an "Angry Bird" character chasing a green pig through a maze.

Junior Kim Garber described it as "a little hard, but fun."

"It's like a puzzle," said junior Joshua Tremblay.

Although they got to start their day hearing the bird caw as they advanced through the tutorial, the students weren't goofing off. They were learning the basic principles of computer programming.

And as the game progressed, the problem solving got tougher.

"This is so confusing," said sophomore Giovanni Sturt. "Some of it's complicated and frustrating, but I like it."

Math classes at Aspen Valley, an alternative high school in Academy District 20, took part in a worldwide campaign called the Hour of Code. Launched by www.code.org as a part of Computer Science Education Week, the project was designed to "prove that regardless of age, race or gender, anyone can learn how to not just consume but build the technologies of the future."

About 2 million students around the globe participated by playing the game and competing for trophies and prizes.

Before trying their hand at the new skill, students saw average and famous people in a video tout the benefits of studying computer science, including Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates, Facebook co-creator Mark Zuckerberg and singer/songwriter Will.i.am.

Computer science is not about being a genius, the students heard, but is about knowing math basics, breaking down problems and being determined - not unlike learning how to play an instrument or a sport.

And there's a shortage of trained workers entering the field. Bejarano said there are two job openings for each person who has a degree in computer programming. One reason for the lack of interest is that only one in 10 schools teach students how to code.

Aspen Valley has not offered computer science classes, Bejarano said, but she plans to assign a coding project next semester and is working on getting an introductory class in the pipeline.

The self-paced game, which instead of teaching students to write lines of code in text uses repeat loops, conditionals and algorithms to develop code, was a great start, said Aidan Palmer, a junior.

"I thought it was pretty cool they could make something so complicated so interesting and easy to figure out," he said. "This program makes you think about how it all comes together. Some people quit as it got harder because they got angry or upset. Others really wanted to figure out where to go."

Tremblay, who wants to work in a hospital as a nurse, also liked the approach of using a game to help students understand programming.

"I honestly wouldn't have ever thought it would have been a career," he said.

The goal, said Bejarano, was to give students an idea of how programming works and motivate them to want to continue learning.

"It's like you don't want to learn how to write music before you learn to enjoy it," she said. "Instead of being concerned about semicolons and parentheses, they're learning how to enjoy programming by getting to the meat of the concepts."

Some students are pretty sure, though, that they don't want to be computer programmers when they grow up.

Ricky Pearson, a junior, said both of his parents work in information technology, and he knows it's not for him.

"I see what they do, and it would bore me very much," he said. Pearson's goal is to own a caf?

But Sturt said he likes "messing with computers" and has wondered about coding.

"I've thought about going into computer stuff," he said, as he reached level 12 of the game's 20.

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