By: Kyle Kitchen
This isn’t an article about the benefits of coding or computational thinking,- we know how coding is benefiting our schools (I will also leave that to some amazing experts out there). This is an adventure about how anyone can enter the world of coding.
I am honoured to have one of the best Edtech jobs as one of the Elementary IT4 Learning consultants for the District School Board of Niagara. I get to work with teachers and students to embed the tools of technology into the curriculum to create engaging, innovative lessons that support 21st century learning. I also have a secret...I really don’t know how to code <insert dramatic music here>. There. I said it. I don’t have any background in programming. I thought Java was what was in my coffee cup and C++ was a grade I got on my midterm in high school. In fact, I just started coding 3 years ago. It all started with a little robot, a circuit board that looked like a Nintendo controller, and an orange cat.
My first coding robot was purchased at a Maker Faire. It was an Ozobot that could be coded just by drawing lines and using different colours. I’ve seen lots of robots before, but what grabbed my attention was the 20 young people surrounding the table, asking questions, learning about how it works. When they showed the Ozo being coded with block code online, I bought one immediately.
My favourite phrase is, “I don’t know what I don’t know.” I didn’t know that I could learn about coding on a deeper level, by using it on the simplest level: Visual Block Coding. Thanks to Scratch from MIT, many of today’s coding robots, online programs and apps use visual block coding that move coding blocks like a puzzle. I can do this, but you know what? My students could already do this too...they were just waiting for me to realize it. Scratch really opened my eyes to the world of coding. Loaded with online tutorials, I was guided along with coding, but this wasn’t a separate journey from the classroom. It became embedded into math curriculum, literacy stories and problem solving. The best part is that I was able to let go of my fears of being the expert. I’ve learned more about Scratch from the kids than I’ve learned on my own!
Visual block-based coding opened up a gateway for the next steps of coding and even a ‘genius hour’ project of my own. I wanted to bring coding to the youngest of learners so I started a program called Kinders Who Code. My timing coincided with the roll out of the new kindergarten program for Ontario and therefore made an easy alignment between coding and the new curriculum possible. I started introducing robots such as Ozobots, Dash, and Beebots, and used apps like Scratch Jr with the kinder classes. I also focused on unplugged coding. We created games on grids, used Scratch cards to physically code each other, and played board games. The Ontario kindergarten program incorporates a great style of teaching through hands-on and play-based learning, and I actually model all of my coding ideas and tasks for upper grades or teacher workshops as ‘learning through discovery’. I start with the basics, and then encourage students and teachers to explore, allowing them to make their own discoveries. I saw four year-olds become leaders, groups of kids collaborating, and an excited willingness to share their knowledge.
Now, before you invest in all the latest coding robots, let me share not only my passion for making, but what I’ve learned through experience over the last few years. Robots are cool and I use them often, but like so many Christmas toys of past, you may find that they start collecting dust in your class. What really inspires students is the ability to create, to write code that wasn’t pre-programed, to go beyond the limits of a toy with wheels, and to foster problem solving in the real world. Welcome to physical computing.
Remember when I said a little Nintendo-like controller rocked my world? Well, that was a Makey Makey. I could hook-up this board using alligator clips to anything that is conductive (a great science lesson) and program it on the computer with Scratch! Add a little cardboard, some paper fasteners, and the kiddos were creating interactive literature boxes, complete with music, their voices and pictures! Shortly thereafter, they were making interactive art pieces, musical instruments (Makey Makey Labz Musical Instrument guide) and adding their own creativity to objects that they constructed themselves. My daughter was also a driving force of my coding journey as she and I made several Makey Makey videos to promote girls in STEM.
Soon enough, coding and makerspace were intertwined in schools. Combining these two concepts with design thinking process and the UN Sustainable Goals, students were given a true purpose for creating: solving real world problems. With other physical computing products like the BBC’s Micro:Bit (check out this lesson on empathy) and Birdbrain Technologies Hummingbird Kits, elementary students could create and code beyond the limits of a screen. We are also preparing them for more complex robotics programs that are often available in high school (Arduino, Vex).
You’re not alone on this journey! All of these coding opportunities have tutorials, step-by-step samples, project examples and guides available at your fingertips. I have found the biggest support group in my coding adventures through Twitter. Educators on Twitter are always willing to give advice, and share resources (and laughs) when I come up with some crazy new scheme for my students to create and explore.
If I could leave you with one parting piece of advice, it would be to dip your toes into the coding pool, do a belly flop, and then try a polar bear dive because you’re ready. Your students are ready. The support is there, you don’t have to be an expert- coding easily embeds into the curriculum, and seeing the brilliant outcomes is exactly why we became educators.