Melanie Katz, a computer science teacher at the East-West School of International Studies in Flushing, wants her students to fill some of the million of unfilled computer jobs projected to exist in 2020. By then, the high school students she teaches will be around 23 years old, many of them new college graduates.
Hoping to inspire them, she had her students complete “An Hour of Code,” part of National Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 5 through 15. The event encourages young people to learn computer programming through fun games and puzzles.
“Is that the Facebook guy?” one student asked another at the beginning of the period, before the class viewed a video in which Leah and Tanya, two computer science students, along with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, Microsoft founder Bill Gates, Ashton Kutcher, Shakira, President Obama and people of all ages and nationalities implored the students to learn to code.
For the rest of the 42-minute period, groups of three students each huddled around computers and took turns navigating through mazes. The earlier levels required helping an Angry Bird reach an evil pig by arranging blocks containing commands such as “move forward,” “turn right” and “turn left,” and then running the program. The more advanced of the 20 levels involved helping a zombie reach a sunflower with only a set number of more complex commands.
An unsuccessful program resulted in avatars hitting walls or simulated explosions.
“That sounds disgusting,” Katz commented when one group’s computer emitted a sound effect indicating the pig had hit a wall. She then joked about her students not knowing the difference between right and left.
Some of the students were stumped by the puzzles, but many found them fun and interesting. A few groups completed all 20 levels in the span of one class period. For most, it was their first time coding.
“It’s interesting how you can put in things and it starts moving,” 10th-grader Karen Ronquillo said. “You have to visualize, it’s harder than it looks.”
“I’m interested in doing more,” student Pritom Mandal said.
“If they are interested they will continue,” said Assistant Principal Polly Chae, noting that the website provided links for students to learn more. She added that 560 students at the school participated in the program throughout the week. Each class substituted a regularly scheduled math or science lesson to complete the hour of code.
“It’s a great background for college,” Chae said. “It could be a requirement by the time they get to college,” she mused.
Tenth-grader Isabel Robayo found coding interesting and thought it was a good break from class.
Elizabeth Choi and Ramanjot Singh, 11th-graders in the TEALS program, an accelerated math and science curriculum, mentored the other students. Choi and Singh learned to code starting in September and both said they enjoyed programming a game called “Space Invaders,” in which they designed scenes and programmed avatars to shoot down alien ships and objects.
Choi said the hour of code was a “fun, yet interesting and easy way to learn how to code.”
Singh’s program had a wizard in it and he enjoyed making the screen pop up at the end to say “LOSER.” He said he might like to continue coding as a side job in the future.
Katz encouraged her students to keep their hour of code in mind when applying to college and choosing a major.
“If you want to study this in college, keep up with math and science,” she urged.
At the end of each period, Katz showed her class a YouTube video of President Obama instructing young people, “Don’t just play on your phone, program on it,” and extolling coding as vital to America’s future.
“No one is born a computer scientist, but with a little hard work and some math and science anyone can become one,” he continued.
One student scowled to himself, “Obamacode!”