‘Hour of Code’ engages Pioneer Valley students

Last modified: Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Julia Levesque was trying to give the snowman arms, typing as she looked at the image on her screen to make sure the limbs were positioned correctly. But something went wrong and the illustration’s torso shifted off to the side. She started again — this time labeling each line of numbers and symbols so she could keep track of her code.

Levesque, 17, of East Longmeadow, joined students around the world last week in an event called the Hour of Code, a program designed to make computer programming more interesting and accessible. She and her classmates at Mount Tom Academy — an alternative high school at Holyoke Community College — were among the millions of students participating this year.

Conceived by the Seattle-based nonprofit organization Code.org, the event promotes basic coding skills through simple tutorials. The event coincided with the nationwide Computer Science Education Week, which aims to highlight the importance of computing — particularly among a young audience.

At first, Levesque thought the activity would be boring and too difficult. But she was pleasantly surprised.

“Just the word ‘coding’ — that doesn’t seem like something everyone can do. It seems hard and complicated,” Levesque said. “But when you do it, you can see the rules and how it works together, so it’s easier than you think.”

She and her peers spread out around their classroom, testing a number of different online coding tutorials. Levesque picked sessions that involved drawing, as she’s interested in art. Other students chose more game-oriented activities.

Mount Tom Academy teacher Barbara Cheney, who admitted she had little background in coding herself, told her class that the point was to begin exploring the technology they use every day.

“Myth: code is mysterious and inaccessible,” said Cheney, of Northampton. “Computers are predictable, consistent and deterministic.”

Mount Tom senior Zach Laprade, 18, of Southampton, was working with Teddy McCormick, 20, an engineering student at Holyoke Community College, on an activity that involved making two-dimensional creatures chase a hero.

“It’s easier than I expected it to be,” Laprade said.

Zach’s mother, Gwen Laprade, 53, has a background in computer science and was there to assist students. In this day and age, she said, computer programming skills are becoming a necessity. Even for those who don’t work in the field, having an understanding of programming can make using software easier — an important skill given how integrated technology has become in our lives, she said.

“I’m on the computer a lot, so if I get a job doing computer stuff that could be fun,” said Adam Abely, 16, of Belchertown. Like his classmates, he said he found the online tutorials easier and more enjoyable than he had expected.

Mount Tom Academy was just one of several area schools to participate in the Hour of Code event.

In Northampton, Leeds Elementary School and R.K. Finn Ryan Road School both offered coding activities for first- through fifth-graders.

Technology Integration Specialist Andrea Marks said most students have no experience with programming, but enthusiastically took to the activities.

This year, Code.org offered tutorials that use characters from the upcoming movie “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and activities based around the popular game Minecraft, a collaborative virtual world with more than 100 million registered users.

Students were thrilled when they saw the game’s familiar choppy graphics.

“They immediately think, I’m going to play Minecraft — how awesome is that," Marks said. “No, you’re not going to play Minecraft — you’re going to begin to understand how they program it. You’re going to get to look under the hood and see what they do.”

And students can access the tutorials at home, too, Marks said, explaining that parents and teachers alike can track students’ progress.

The activities teach students logic, math skills and how to complete a process step by step, Marks said, adding that there’s also an element of creativity.

“I tell them, look, there’s a future in technology, there are jobs that haven’t even been created yet,” Marks said. “There are technology jobs out there but not enough people to apply for them because sadly we’re not teaching computer science in K-12.”

At Crocker Farm Elementary School in Amherst, students from kindergarten through sixth grade participated.

Instructional technology teacher Liz Breen said it’s her favorite time of the year, noting that it teaches students patience and helps them see the other side of the games they so frequently play.

The purpose of these activities, Breen said, is to “teach them that they’re not just consumers of technology — that they can actually have impact on changing it.”

There are activities suited to every level. The younger students worked on mouse skills, which are somewhat difficult for children used to iPads and other touch screens, she said. Older students, meanwhile, focused on learning the basics of different computer languages and writing their own JavaScript.

One great aspect of this event, Breen said, is how connected it make students feel to their peers around the world. A map on Code.org shows near 200,000 coding events taking place across the globe.

Videos of President Barack Obama and Nobel Prize laureate Malala Yousafzai speak to the importance of computer skills. And students receive buttons reading “Got Code?” and “Computer Science Rocks” along with certificates for participating, Breen said.

By the end of the coding activity, Levesque, the Mount Tom Academy student, said she had a new insight into the websites she visits online and how they work.

“I thought I wouldn’t understand any of this,” she said. “Once you get the hang of it ... it’s a lot easier.”

Stephanie McFeeters can be reached at smcfeeters@gazettenet.com.


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