Scarborough students see the light of computer coding

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SCARBOROUGH — “What skill did you use to light that Christmas tree?” Courtney Graffius asked a class of second-grade students at Eight Corners Elementary School last week.

“Coding!” shouted a boy in the back.

“That’s right,” Graffius replied. “Coding.”

Graffius, along with other technology coordinators and teachers throughout the district, participated in the week-long Hour of Code event from Dec. 8-12 alongside thousands of students across the country.

The second annual Hour of Code was held in participating schools as part of Computer Science Education Week. It was started by code.org, a nonprofit organization aimed at increasing computer coding availability in schools and to students across the world.

This year, more than 78 million students in more than 180 countries participated in at least one Hour of Code event, according to the hourofcode.com website. The United States held nearly 40,000 different Hour of Code events, including nearly 300 in Maine schools. 

The incentive to encourage students to become learned in computer coding and programming is reaction to an evolving job market, said Graffius, who is the technology integrator for the School Department. 

The growing number of coding and computer programming jobs, and a shortage of graduating students who are capable of filling the vacant positions, is a troubling disparity. The reality is, Graffius said, “there are more jobs than they’re able to fill.”

According to code.org, by 2020 there will be approximately 1 million more computer coding jobs than students. In Maine, there are nearly 2,000 vacant computing jobs, and that number is estimated to grow at four times the state’s average job growth rate.

Yet Maine, along with 25 other states, does not recognize computer science as a valid credit toward graduation. 

Hour of Code hopes to combat that. 

The week-long activity is usually comprised of an hour each day devoted to rudimentary coding. Depending on the grade level, coding comes in the form of games and interactive activities like lighting the Maine state Christmas tree in front of the White House from a classroom computer, or learning about coding through visits from computer programmers and scientists.

Throughout the week in Scarborough, Graffius facilitated activities for elementary-aged student. On Thursday, after Annie Wood’s second-graders remotely programmed Maine’s Christmas tree to light up at 4 p.m., they worked with a bee-shaped robot known as as Bee-Bot. Bee-Bot’s movement is controlled by pressing one of four arrow buttons on its back.

The students kneeled in a circle around a large square, gridded poster. Three sticker flowers were stuck on three separate grids. “Program Bee-Bot to go and pollinate this white lily,” Graffius said as she motioned to one of the stickers. 

Students were instructed to press the directional arrows and for each time they pressed a button, Bee-Bot would move that number of grids. 

Several students volunteered, and through trial and error, each succeeded at directing the bee to the correct flower by using the arrows. Pleased, Graffius said, “Boys and girls, you just took the first steps in becoming computer programmers.”

The idea of conceptually visualizing and then executing that visualization concretely is an important lesson for young minds to glean,  Graffius said. Further, helping students to concretely grasp “the correlation between what they do and how that makes things happen on the computer. (And) learning and analyzing their own errors is a great skill, anyway.”

Near the end of the hour, student Cody Spengler asked Graffius why they were learning coding. 

“We think, in 14 or 15 years, when you’re adults and have jobs, there are going to be so many with computer science and technology,” Graffius said. “Technology is everywhere; we think it is really important for you to know how to work with it.”

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA 

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Cody Spengler and his second-grade classmates watch a bee robot, or Bee-Bot, move toward a fake flower at Eight Corners Elementary School in Scarborough on Dec. 11. Spengler was given the task of directing Bee-Bot toward a specific flower by pressing arrow buttons that program the bee’s movement. The activity was part of Hour of Code, a week-long event devoted to exposing students to rudimentary methods of coding and computer programming.

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South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.