Poly Fifth-Graders Participate in Hour of Code

Published : Thursday, January 2, 2014 | 11:21 PM

As part of Computer Science Education Week, Poly fifth-graders recently participated in an “Hour of Code” event, during which they were introduced to the fundamentals of computer science. Classes visited the North Campus Computer Lab, where Upper School computer science instructor Richard White led them on an hour-long exploration of computational thinking and computer science.

Activities began with an introduction to computational thinking: the problem-solving strategies and skills that have application to computer scientists and software engineers. Students volunteered descriptions of how to solve a simple problem—in this case, drawing a line in one direction or another—and quickly transitioned onto the computers. Using an interactive Python (programming language) session, they drew a line, and then a right angle, and then developed an algorithm to draw a square and other more advanced geometric figures.

“It’s fun learning how to think like the computer,” Sierra D. shared, neatly summing up one of the primary goals of the hour. The instructors emphasized the puzzle-solving aspect of the problem analysis, and in a follow-up discussion, students had hands off the keyboard while they considered the next step in their study.

“To draw a square, we make a line turn 90 degrees, and do that four times,” White instructed as he wrote the Python code on the board. “What two changes to this program would we need to make here to draw an octagon?” Faces squinted in concentration, followed moments later by hands shooting into the air. “We have to do the loop eight times!” one announced. “We shouldn’t turn 90 degrees, though—we should turn 45,” another pointed out. And then they were back on the keyboards, tapping away with only occasional assistance from three Upper School students who were there as mentors.

An important element of the activity for White was connecting students’ computational thinking directly with the code they were writing, and ultimately the output that the code produced: “Using an app that a programmer has written for you is fun, certainly, but there’s nothing like the creative joy of seeing something that you’ve written yourself coming to life on the screen.”

There was one more surprise in store, and students turned to examine the whiteboard. The code there superficially resembled the code they’d just written, but then they quickly noticed some small, important differences. “What do you think it will do?” they were asked. There were a few guesses ventured, but this one was a bit more complex; students turned to their keyboards to try it out. The spirograph-style drawings that resulted from this new program were perfect for experimenting with, and students were soon sharing their work—code and drawings—with anyone who would come and look.

All too soon the hour was up. Students collected printouts of their favorite program and the art that it had produced, and at least one student returning home jumped onto the computer to finish up a program that he had started in the class.

“The art part was very fun and interesting. Programming was awesome. It felt good to program something,” Sean M. said afterward. Jake S. “chimed in, “I liked how no one finished with the same drawing. It was cool because each one was unique.”

The Hour of Code event was planned by Middle School Educational Technology Coordinator Kelly Ward and assisted by Director of Technology John Yen and Upper School Educational Technology Coordinator Laura Holmgren. The fifth-graders were especially excited to be working with AP Computer Science students Anisha C., Liam W., and Henry Z., who took time out from their schedules to mentor the younger students with technical help and advice. Also in attendance were teachers visiting from Sierra Canyon School, Bruce Buenaventura and Chris Tillman, as well as Alex Cunha from Caltech’s Center for Advanced Computer Research.

The “Hour of Code” offerings will continue in January, when Poly seventh-graders will be participating in their own event. For more information on Poly’s Hour of Code event, including curriculum materials and online resources, please visit www.crashwhite.com/hourofcode. Read on for more student feedback.

Polytechnic School, 1030 E. California Blvd., Pasadena, (626) 796-2249 or visit www.polytechnic.org.

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