Falmouth students crack code to 'demystify' computer science

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FALMOUTH — More than 1,300 elementary and middle school students participated in an event this week that President Obama, Ashton Kutcher, Mark Zuckerberg and Usher all could get behind.

Students took part in Computer Science Education Week’s Hour of Code, spending one hour during the course of the week working on computer programming skills.

The program was billed by organizer Code.org as the “largest learning event in history.” All told, nearly 60 million students across the United States participated, well up from the 15 million who participated last year.

Technology teacher Michael Harvey said the elementary school was participating to “demystify” computer science for students.

“We need to have people with those skills,” Harvey said of computer science. He said educators need to “get them excited about computer science at an early age.”

Students in kindergarten through second grade spend half of their hour not on computers, but instead practicing what Harvey called “computational thinking,” by working together and solving problems. They spend the second half of the hour using iPads.

“They program each other,” Harvey said.

Students in a second-grade class on Dec. 9 were broken up into groups, and had to use a set of specific commands to have their partners navigate a course.

“We’re using more active activities with the younger students,” Harvey said. “The computer acts to reinforce it in a different way.”

Students in fourth and sixth grades on Dec. 9 were using iPads and laptop computers, respectively, for their entire Hour of Code. Instead of typing code, most were using a program called Blockley, which is a Google-based visual programming editor. 

“Instead of typing code, they move blocks of code,” Harvey said. “They start simple and get more challenging.”

High School students didn’t participate, though they did help facilitate as technology leaders and mentors for the younger students.

On Dec. 8, students got to participate in a Skype conversation with Facebook CEO Sheryl Sandberg with a handful of other schools across the country.

Harvey said 14 speakers were available, ranging from entertainer Usher and actor Ashton Kutcher, to Microsoft founder Bill Gates, and Twitter and Square co-founder Jack Dorsey. One-hundred classrooms won the chance to chat with one of these speakers, and Falmouth landed Sandberg. To qualify, the entire school had to participate.

On Dec. 10, Falmouth students will be Skyping with Jens Bergensten, the lead developer for the computer game Minecraft.

Falmouth also participated in the event last year, but Harvey said the special guest speakers made it feel bigger this year.

“The whole idea is creating something that others can use,” Harvey said. “It’s about having an idea and figuring out what skills you need to do it.”

Colin Ellis can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @colinoellis.

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Fourth-grade students Taylor Evers, left, and Mitchell Ham participate in their Hour of Code on Dec. 9 at Falmouth Elementary School. Their class used a program called Blockly, which is a Google-based visual programming editor, to learn on iPads.

Reporter covering the Portland Public School District as well as the town of Falmouth for The Forecaster. Can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 123 or cellis@theforecaster.net.