Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Students embrace cracking the code

Apply math skills to computer task

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While you went unsuspectingly about your business this week, more than 15,200 kids in Manitoba were learning to talk to an empty brain.

And not only learning to talk to it -- but also to fill it with knowledge, and teach it, and above all else, to command it.

Grades 2 and 5 students at Pacific Junction School just west of Assiniboine Park were learning to write code -- a skill, educators say, that's shockingly rare in a world so dependent upon computers.

It was part of the industry-organized Hour of Code, a project that aims at having 10 million children learn to wrote code this month.

Pacific Junction Grade 5 teacher Sandi Ferguson and Grade 2 teacher Christie Petersen figured this was university-level stuff, until they watched their students flashing their fingers across keyboards with enthusiasm and skill.

Like adults, "kids think that computers come like that," said Ferguson. But someone has to write the code that constructs the programs.

"You think how 200 years ago how many people could write -- literacy is power. There are so few people who know this skill."

Pembina Trails School Division computer consultant David Wall said computer science isn't in the curriculum -- some high schools have optional courses, such as Fort Richmond Collegiate, whereas Vincent Massey Collegiate does not.

The kids use programs such as JavaScript to write code -- no one is expecting them to create a new version of JavaScript from scratch.

Though, maybe if they had enough time...

Both Ferguson and Petersen see a clear correlation between computer science and math skills.

"They're a lot better problem-solvers than we were; that's where the math skills come out," Ferguson said. "Our focus on problem-solving in math is making our kids better thinkers in so many ways."

Writing code, said Ferguson, will "prepare them for the literacies of the world they live in."

Over in the computer lab, kids wrote code Wednesday to program their own Angry Birds game, after which they progressed to writing code for a zombies vs. plants game. Seriously. If zombies gore-soaked with chlorophyll doesn't sicken or terrify you, read on...

"We are just learning how to program and make a zombie go so far," said Grade 2 programmer Steven Coutris. "You have to put out the right blocks: turn left, turn right, move forward."

And suddenly turning to a colleague: "How is it possible to finish this level in six blocks?"

In Grade 2.

"It's like math. You have to figure out a 90-degree angle and how to turn," said Steven's Grade 5 big sister Eliana Coutris. "It gives our brains a nice shake."

"We have never learned pixels, and, like, turning degrees before," chimed in Andi Almonte. "At stage 11, it shows you how to draw a square.

"Some day I'd like to make a website -- that would be a lot of work. You'd tell it what to do," said Andi.

"We could maybe do our own app" if the teachers gave the students enough time, said Max Mulligan. "We'd do a math app, with strategies and games to help kids."

No sweat, not when you speak the computer language and have the skills, said Eliana: "Anyone could do it."

nick.martin@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 13, 2013 A10

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