Hillcrest elementary school students Shreya Sivakumar and Alexander Gwillim set a stack of plastic cups and paper instructions on a table. Then they work out their roles for the upcoming exercise.
“I’ll be the robot; the robot stacks the cups,” says nine-year-old Gwillim, in Grade 4.
“No, I’ll be the robot,” says Sivakumar, smiling as the Grade 5 student pulls rank and age over Gwillim.
As Gwillim sets about drawing instructions for Sivakumar to follow, the pair are happily to confuse work with play as they prepare for today’s international Hour of Code, a 20-hour program where kids can learn the basic principles of code be re-designing portions of popular video games like Angry Birds and Flappy Bird.
“This is an algorithm that tells (Sivakumar) how to stack the plastic cups into a tower,” Gwillim explains. “She has to pretend she’s a robot (to perform each step).”
The “unplugged” exercise is designed to mimic the basic, logical steps used in computer programming. Today’s Hour of Code begins at 1 p.m. and is part of Computer Science Week at the school.
Every Grade 4 and 5 Hillcrest student will participate today through Seattle-based code.org, which promotes the Hour of Code as a way to get kids excited about a career in computer programming. The public non-profit hopes to expand participation in computer science by making it available in more schools, as well as increase participation by women and underrepresented students of colour.
“I introduce it to students to open their minds, so they will think of themselves not just as users of technology but also as creators,” says Lorraine Powell, Hillcrest’s teacher-librarian with a special focus on technology integration.
In less than two years, Powell says she can see the difference learning code makes in the way kids look at things.
“Going ahead, I think understanding how code works will become something that’s necessary to succeed,” she says.
Hour of Code is touted as the largest learning event in history, and has grown exponentially in size thanks to the advent of social media. Hillcrest was one of the first three Vancouver Island schools to register, which now includes a longer list, such as Gordon Head middle school, St. Michaels University School, Esquimalt High, Glenlyon Norfolk School, Spencer middle school and Parkland secondary.
Gwillim and Sivakumar are Powell’s challenge class and are already halfway through the 20-hour curriculum provided by code.org.
They’ll be on hand with the rest of the challenge class members to assist Hillcrest Grade 4 and 5 students doing code today.
“All the Grade 4 and 5 students will do the 20-hour program, some just haven’t started yet,” Powell says.
“Obviously diving into HTML at this point is too complicated for children but the interface on Hour of Code is very inviting for the kids.”
Users fit together a series of blocks, each with a specific instruction, which tell their video game how to work. They can then control the character. Other unplugged examples include board games in addition to the tower building with plastic cups.
“It’s my job to introduce this to them and after 20 hours, if their interest is piqued, they can pursue it on their own,” Powell says.