Students at Baucom Elementary School learned earlier this month that video games just don’t happen magically.
Instead, they need a language to come to life on screen. That fact captivated many of the Apex youth, especially 8-year-old Evan Beaver.
Evan often plays Angry Birds on his grandmother’s iPad, a game that requires the player to choose the correct angle to launch explosive birds at the bad-guy pigs.
Evan never thought about the codes and programming that let him defeat the pigs, but he said he liked learning more about it when his school spent 60 minutes on coding exercises. When he successfully programmed commands in each “level” of a coding project in class, Evan whooped and pumped his fist, just as if he was leveling up in the actual game.
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“It’s a fun way to learn about how computers work,” the third-grader said. “But it’s weird.”
The lesson was for Hour of Code, a push by the website code.org to educate more people about computer science. Coding languages, such as Python, C++ or Java, power the software in everything from video games to word processors.
Unlike, say, the English language, coding languages are wholly logical. They’re made of commands and yes-or-no statements. And what K-12 educators like about coding – and especially K-5 educators at Baucom – is students can be creative while also engaging in problem-solving and addressing mistakes before moving forward.
“They get to learn and fail,” said Marlo Gaddis, a technology expert with the Wake County Public Schools System. She said that in addition to Baucom, several schools countywide have undertaken an increased focus on coding.
The third-grade students at Baucom weren’t writing lines of code, however, which can look like gibberish, even to trained eyes.
Instead, a computer program based on the popular “Angry Birds” game featured a bird the students had to move onto a target. The screen was divided into a grid, and the students had to chain together a list of commands to get the birds to move in different directions and around obstacles.
Then, they clicked start and waited to see if their bird would make it.
Some easily breezed through levels of increasing difficulty. Some got stuck on levels that gave them multiple possible choices, instead of one clear-cut solution. Others simply didn’t grasp the concept.
“A lot of them will choose ‘turn left’ but forget to choose ‘move,’ ” said April Thomas, Baucom technology instructor. “They think the computer will just know. But that’s the point – computers don’t just know.”
Many of today’s video games are seamless and intuitive. The player swipes a finger or points and clicks, and the action happens instantly.
Evan, the enthusiastic 8-year-old, said he likes how problem-solving in computer science is different than in other classes at school.
“It’s fun, because you’ve really got to use your brain,” he said.
Thomas and Gaddis both said coding is already an in-demand skill, and that it will be a must-have by the time current elementary school kids enter the job market.
“Computer science is as important as reading or math now,” Thomas said. “Every job in the future is going to require coding.”
She and Gaddis said Wake County is ramping up its coding efforts, but even still, many teachers know less about the subject than some of their students.
In elementary school, coding is usually taught in technology class. At the middle and high school levels, Gaddis said, it has the possibility to be used in many classes.
“Coding can integrate into any curriculum,” she said. “So, instead of a PowerPoint or book report, kids can build an app.”
Doran: 919-460-2604; Twitter: @will_doran