Electronic Eye August 2014
Find Time for Code!
Raise your hand if computer gaming is something that young adults do at your library? Keep them raised high so we can get an accurate count. Okay. . . it appears that everyone has just raised their hand! Now keep your hands raised if you sometimes question whether the games that the teens play are the best use of your young adult time and talents. I have been longing to find a way to increase the amount of brain cells used in my library while still appealing to the population that enjoys computer gaming. Or as one of my teacher colleagues has put it — have teens be creators on computers rather than just consumers.
My desire to help young adults be creators instead of just consumers has heightened as I’ve attempted to find ways to have my library support my school district’s STEM initiatives. I’m certain that there are many libraries and schools that are working to maximize their STEM outreach as well.
Teaching teens how to code is a natural way for libraries to increase their STEM offerings. The thing that has held me back for many years has been my lack of coding skill. With the exception of having to learn HTML in the early days of the World Wide Web, I haven’t progressed very far. Fortunately, there are several websites that have pulled down this barrier. Today, there is no need to know how to code in order to expose young adults to the world of coding. In fact, a librarian can easily wind up learning alongside the young adults.
Before reviewing these websites, I need to explain that most of these work by teaching users how to organize blocks of code. Each block has the actual code written on it. This allows young adults to experience the logic behind the code without having to memorize and type out the actual commands. The actual written code is always viewable, but the block structure takes some of the confusion away from having to read through a voluminous amount of words.
By this summer, nearly 40 million people have tried an Hour of Code on the website Code.org. It is easy to see why so many people have chosen to learn the basics of coding with this appealing and motivating website. The online curriculum embedded in the gaming experience teaches concepts such as sequencing, repeats, if-then sequences, and parameters. Users are awarded trophies as they gain skill.
There are twenty stages in the curriculum and the gaming scenarios in the early stages feature content, from the popular “Angry Birds” and “Plants Vs. Zombies” universe, which makes the coding challenges seem even more like “real world” coding situations. The stages of the curriculum are introduced with videos of coding “celebrities” such as NBA star Grant Hill and Microsoft founder Bill Gates. The celebrity explains the importance of the concept that is embedded in the gaming challenge and sometimes gives insight into the role coding has played in their lives. The celebrity coders also offer video hints if a user is finding the new concept difficult to understand.
Users can create accounts and also use their sign-on credentials with Google+, Facebook, Twitter, and Windows Live. Progress is saved, of course, and users can return to where they left off easily. Adults can also be given the ability to create a class and track their students’ progress. The classroom interface allows the adult to view recent activity and color codes their efforts so that the adult can see whether or not a user is getting the concept or appears stuck. Certificates can be printed out to give to users who complete the entire curriculum.
I used Code.org in my library this spring as a part of a lunch-based Code Club. I advertised it by creating a free-standing display called the Code Box. This Code Box has screenshots of the Web site’s games pasted on the panels of the box. The screenshot was on a hinged window so that users could open it and see what I had pasted on the inside, which was the actual code for the game. The slogan for the box was “What’s Inside the Games You Play?” There was also a door that users could open and that was where we kept a progress chart for the Code Club members. The kids enjoyed showing off their progress as a part of the display. They could also discover who had already completed the stage that they were struggling with and knew who to talk to if they were having trouble with a concept. There were many times when this impromptu mentoring went on between teens without me needing to facilitate their connection. I personally learned a great deal about coding by working through the stages along with the students.
Was there a downside to this website’s use? The site is sequentially structured with users being offered a problem to solve with code. This website is not built for users to explore creative uses of code or to see their own ideas come to fruition. Also, sometimes a user would choose to play a level over and over again rather than go forward and try to learn a new skill. This happened most with the popular Flappy Bird game which allows users to see how different variables in the code affects game play. One particular student enjoyed making the game completely impossible to win and then encouraging others, especially me, to attempt to play. His gleeful cackle was a fun part of my lunch time memories from this year.
Users who complete the curriculum and are ready for greater challenges have a variety of options, many of which are suggested on the Code.org site.
Here are some of the other places that my advanced Code Clubbers used to hone their abilities.
Scratch is a free programming language and online community created and maintained by the “Lifelong Kindergarten” group at MIT to help introduce children and young adults to programming. Unlike Code.org, Scratch features an online project editor that allows users to start being creative with their own ideas immediately. This makes the website wide open in terms of idea creation but more difficult to initially use. The good news is that the Help section is extensive. Users can print out getting started .pdf guides and help cards to refer to as they explore a new concept. Users can also take advantage of the more targeted help suggestions that are available from the right-hand side of the project editor. These help suggestions generally offer steps for users to complete.
The online community that is a part of the Scratch universe makes Scratch a very popular destination for young adults. Users can share their projects and they also have to be willing to allow other users to remix their projects. Remixing is very important in the world of Scratch. Users can learn a great deal about coding by taking someone else’s game apart and tweaking to make it their own. The Scratch universe is guided by Creative Commons and users must agree that their shared projects have the Share Alike license.
Enjoying the games available in the community is a great way for people new to scratch to see what is possible and to gather some inspiration before launching into their own projects. While Scratch is more difficult for a librarian who is a code newbie to implement, it affords users a great deal of personal creativity.
Tynker is a subscription-based site that both schools and parents can use to help their young adults learn how to code in a supported environment. The price point for a classroom is $399. For individual users, the two courses are priced at $50 each. Like Code.org, the Introduction to Programming course is sequential and gives users an opportunity to learn programming concepts in a way that builds upon the skills already learned. A more advanced course is also offered called “Game Design: The Drone Menace.” Unlike Code.org, subscribed users also have access to a Creativity Suite that allows users to make their own characters and gaming scenarios. They can work on them online and also share their games as a part of the community building aspect of the Tynker site.
An additional feature of Khan Academy’s computer programming offerings includes the opportunity to learn more about the lives of individual programmers, hopefully inspiring young adults to see how computer programming could fit into their future plans.
Kathleen Meulen Ellison has been a teacher librarian for over two decades in both New York City and the Pacific Northwest. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.