Originally published in the Manchester Journal Dec. 6, 2017. 

MANCHESTER — Each year, Phyllis Tate looks forward to the week of Dec. 9, which she’s come to know as “Computer Science Education Week.”

Tate, a librarian and technology teacher at The Dorset School, has a background in computer science herself. For the last five years, she’s shared her knowledge of programming with students utilizing the global “Hour of Code” initiative, designed to introduce both children and adults to the art of coding.

The grassroots campaign provides online tutorials for a range of skill levels throughout the year, though many events are planned within Computer Science Education Week. Coinciding with the Dec. 9 birthday of trailblazing computer scientist Admiral Grace Hopper, the week has become popular across the globe. In 2017, approximately 124,846 “Hour of Code” events have been planned for the week of Dec. 4 to Dec. 10.

“I have a background in computer science, so I’ve always wanted to get kids programming,” Tate said. “There’s a huge need in the world with technology growing so much. To be able to give these kids easy, accessible ways to get introduced to that is great.”

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 4, Tate waits for her first class to file in. She’ll be doing three weeks of “Hour of Code” lessons in between the Thanksgiving and Winter breaks, from her kindergarten classes to the eighth grade. Today, it’s the eighth graders that get to kick off “Hour of Code.”

“With the older kids, we’ve been doing it for five years now,” Tate explained. “They’re really ready to connect this to the real world, so I’m going to introduce them to artificial intelligence and show them a video on the smart cars, and how programming is used in them.”

After a brief introduction to the real world applications of the skills they’re about to learn, the students get to work. There are a number of tutorials to choose from, so they can work within their individual skill levels and interests.

At their most basic level, the activities allow students who cannot yet read to program using arrows rather than text. Other tutorials utilize a tool known as “block coding,” which requires students to snap together pre-existing blocks of code to make a program work as intended. In more advanced activities, students practice text-based coding to master the commands it requires.

“They have wonderful tutorials, and they really teach the kids the basics of programming,” Tate said. “They have to tell the computer everything exactly the way it needs to be done.”

While the tutorials may feel more like a game with themes like Angry Birds, Star Wars, Frozen, or Minecraft, Tate insists that the activities allow students to become increasingly fluent in the language of code.

“It really lets the kids relate to what they’re doing,” she said. “Sometimes I wonder if they really realize the extent of what they’re doing, and all of the critical thinking it requires. They just love doing it.”

“It’s fun, because we can do our own thing,” said eighth grader Matthew Carrara, who says that he has been programming since kindergarten. “There’s different courses that you can take, so it’s individualized.”

While not all students have a background in coding before they reach Tate’s class, eighth grade student Charlotte Swenor says that the lessons are accessible for everyone.

“You start off really easy, just using blocks at first, instead up jumping right into writing codes,” she explained. “It’s really fun because it’s interactive.”

“You’re able to learn new things, and this makes it really easy to do that and then expand,” added Claire Paxton, who is participating in “Hour of Code” for the first time this year. “It’s a new thing for me, but it’s fun.”

According to Tate, the “Hour of Code” tutorials can prove beneficial even for students not interested in pursuing careers in computer science.

“Some are really interested in computer science and other S.T.E.M. [science, technology, engineering, and math] fields, and they’ll want to pursue it further,” she said. “Even for students that aren’t as interested, they’ll have to be dealing with computers in some capacity.”

While “Hour of Code” is utilized by schools across the globe, Tate is thankful that she has the opportunity to work with students in a more focused context.

“I know that other schools have tried to integrate it within the rest of their curriculum,” said Tate, who teaches technology classes as an elective. “I feel very fortunate that I have the kids specifically in here for this. I just really like exposing them to computer science, and making them think more about it.”

For more information, visit https://hourofcode.com/us.

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