To get students engaged in Computer Science, one teacher says, make learning to code as easy as playing a game.

GUEST COLUMN | By Matt Mueller

CREDIT CodeCombatTeaching students how to code software is one of the most valuable skills a school can give them, and having these skills will virtually guarantee them employment once they’re in the workforce. According to the US Department of Labor, the median pay for a software developer in 2015 was $100,690, and the growth in available positions is expected to be 17 percent during the period 2014-2024 (more than twice the average growth rate across all occupations).

Yet while high schools are beginning to add Computer Science (CS) courses to their roster, very few elementary and middle schools have done so. One common reason is the difficulty of finding CS teachers – most people with the right technical background go into private enterprise.

They couldn’t get enough, and wanted to keep going after the pilot ended. I had to assure them that they could continue in the fall.

My school, Ascension School in Oak Park, Ill., has taken great pride in expanding its technical curriculum. We begin technical instruction in first grade, with skills like keyboarding. My personal belief is that all of our students should learn how to code. Tech has permeated virtually every aspect of our lives and every industry, and that means most jobs will involve some level of coding by the time my current students are out in the work force. Therefore, during the 2015-2016 school year, with the enthusiastic support of our school leadership and parents of our students, I began exploring coding curricula, with the intention of adding coding as a full-year option for our middle school students for 2016-2017.

Coding platforms for middle schoolers fall into two broad categories: drag-and-drop tools, and writing real code. I looked at tools in both categories, and quickly determined that drag-and-drop tools (Scratch is one that’s well known) are too simplistic for my middle schoolers, and thus wouldn’t hold their attention for very long. So I narrowed my search to tools that teach students to write real code. My other criteria were: high level of engagement for students (both boys and girls, both technically inclined and not), and a curriculum that could be taught by people without any CS background (since I may not be the only educator teaching these classes). While Illinois does not have state standards for CS education, I also wanted a platform that incorporated support of some other standards, such as the AP CS exam.

We piloted two platforms in the spring of 2016, and the students strongly preferred one of them: CodeCombat. It made learning to code as easy as playing a game, and the game format (involving heroes, castles and gems) was appealing to both boys and girls. The content mirrors the Stanford undergraduate CS course. In the one month we used it in our classrooms, all of the students completed the Intro to CS levels of the game, including learning basic syntax, arguments and strings – and had fun doing it. It didn’t seem like work. Students worked at their own pace, and many went beyond the Intro level. They couldn’t get enough, and wanted to keep going after the pilot ended. I had to assure them that they could continue in the fall.

My advice for educators who are considering this route:

  • If you are working with students in grades K-3, consider a drag-and-drop tool, which will be easier for students who aren’t yet prolific readers and don’t have strong keyboard skills.
  • If you are working with students in grades 4 or above, implement a platform that has students writing real code on day one. While it may seem daunting to you, it won’t be to your students. They’ll take to it quickly.
  • Have your students try out at least 2-3 different platforms for at least one month each, and watch for engagement. After our pilots, there was a clear preference from both the teachers and the students.
  • Once you select a platform, make it a yearlong program for students. You’ll be amazed at how adept they become in a very short time. It will be tempting to cut the program short because of this. Don’t do it – CS proficiency is a critical skill and can also help boost students’ interest in other STEM disciplines.

Today in the U.S., most students, especially girls and students of color, don’t ever consider a career in CS. According to CodeCombat survey data, after playing it, 88 percent of all students – regardless of gender or ethnicity – become interested in continuing to learn programming. That number doesn’t surprise me, as during our pilot, multiple students told me that Computer/CS class was their favorite part of the school day.

Learning to code is an essential skill for the twenty-first century. Offering CS education, especially earlier in their education, can give your students a significant edge and may ignite interest where none existed before.

Matt Mueller is a technology teacher at Ascension School in Oak Park, Ill.