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Portland-area students urged to login, learn code

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Portland-area students urged to login, learn code

PORTLAND — For an hour Monday, a math class at Lincoln Middle School was a cacophony of squawking birds and moaning zombies.

Amid the noise, about 10 students leaned into their iPads and used computer codes to manipulate Angry Birds and the undead through a series of mazes as part of Hour of Code, a national effort to expose children to computer programming.

All week long, those sounds will be repeated in 40 schools throughout the state. When it's all over, about 15,000 Maine students will have deepened their understanding of computer science, and some, perhaps, will develop a lifelong interest in coding.

That's the plan, anyway, said Jay Collier, director of Project > Login.

Hour of Code, which is sponsored by Microsoft, Google, Apple and more, is meant to demystify computer science for young learners. Through the website code.org, students can watch a short introductory video about coding hosted by Facebook mogul Mark Zuckerberg, then go on to a series of puzzles that demonstrate how coding is used. The effort coincides with national Computer Science Education Week.

Each puzzle asks students to arrange pre-written codes to guide avatars through a series of steps. If, for instance, a student successfully leads a zombie to a sunflower at the end of a maze, the student moves on to the next level. After 20 levels, the Hour of Code is complete.

The annual effort is getting a major statewide push this year by Project > Login. The group was launched in February, after several years of development, Collier said. The group was formed by CEOs from seven Maine businesses that had difficulty recruiting computer professionals from within the state, including Wex, Idexx and Unum.

Collier said the number of students who graduate from Maine colleges with degrees in computer science is "far too small to meet the need" of employers.

"Many young and adult learners simply don't know these jobs exist and they don't really know what these jobs entail," Collier said. "There are world-class companies in Maine that are looking for people in these careers and cannot find them."

Hour of Code will be held in schools throughout greater Portland: Falmouth, Freeport, Harpswell, South Portland and Yarmouth, to name a few.

In Yarmouth, all students between first and 12th grades will have an opportunity to participate in Hour of Code throughout the week, said Mike Arsenault, technology coordinator at Frank H. Harrison Middle School.

At the middle school and high school, computer professionals from the region will also make visits to the school to help guide the students through the program and discuss computer science as a career option.

Arsenault said many of the professionals expressed frustration about the low number of qualified candidates in Maine for computing jobs.

"One of the volunteers said he'd hire kids straight out of high school; he's having that much of a hard time finding people who can do this work in this area," Arsenault recalled.

In Freeport and other schools in Regional School Unit 5, the goal was to expose 1,900 students at all grade levels to computer programming, said Seth Thompson, the district's technology director.

"We're trying to hit as many students as possible," he said.

Thompson said it's important introduce computer programming concepts to children at a young age.

"It can be fairly complex, but if they get this exposure young, it's going to open up other opportunities for them," he said. "Just like with math, you start with addition and subtraction before you move into calculus."

Back at Lincoln Middle School, where an estimated 450 students will participate in Hour of Code by the end of the week, seventh-grader Delaney Haines, said she enjoyed the program.

"It was fun," she said. "It made me want to move on to Level 20."

Haines and her fellow students were working on iPads they had received earlier this year. Math teacher Carol Hager said the tablets, which were given to students as part of the Maine Learning Technology Initiative, hold the potential to transform the classroom by allowing self-directed study.

"We have kids at varying levels," she said. "Some kids only have fourth- or fifth-grade math skills. ... Then I've got some kids who are working at a ninth- or 10th-grade level. They can keep going and get more deeply into the content (with the iPads).

"It's a tool to go beyond," she said.

Seventh-grader Noah Price cruised through the first 19 levels, but he couldn't quite crack the 20th level by the time the class bell rang. Price vowed to try it again later.

"I am not giving up," he said.

Ben McCanna can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or bmccanna@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @BenMcCanna.