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June 23, 2014

Stevens fifth-graders take a ‘byte’ out of computer programming at Hour of Code

Fifth-grade students were gathered in the computer lab on Friday, June 20, to learn basic computer programming to make a Zombie avatar navigate through a series of mazes. With help from professional computer programmers from the NYS Comptroller’s Office, students learned the basics of programming and writing code (Javascript, HTML, etc.).

When asked if they knew what code was used for, many students said making video games and websites. Correct. But computer programming and code writing is also necessary to build robots, rockets and cars, to develop software and apps, and the list goes on and on, explains Eric Gulatee a computer programmer and one of the volunteers who spearheaded the Stevens Hour of Code.

The Zombie task the students were given required them to rely on their logic and problem-solving skills by thinking about how to break down a problem and discover steps or commands needed to reach their goal. In this case, the goal was to move the Zombie to the sunflower located at the end of the maze.

“That’s the idea behind coding,” says Gulatee. “To give an action or command code to something to make it do what you want.”

Fifth-grader Julia Felton, who is a fan of video games, said “this programming project is so cool, I feel like I’m making a video game rather than playing one.”

She said when she grows up she wants to be video game creator. Her comment made Gulatee and the other programmers smile.

“It only takes a small step, such as this, to get someone inspired—especially if they already have a spark inside that just needs to be ignited,” says Gulatee.

That’s one of the reasons Gulatee and his colleagues reached out to BH-BL—they wanted to give back to the community and introduce computer programming to kids at an early age.

“Computers have been great for me and have given me a career,” says Vandana Goel, a computer programmer with the NYS Comptroller’s Office. “I wanted to be a part of a movement that gives back by getting kids interested in the concepts of programming and code writing at an early age.”

According to 2012 statistics from code.org, 9 out of ten schools in the United States do not offer computer programming classes.

“There’s definitely a shortage of computer programmers in the United States,” says Gulatee. “This forces many companies to seek out qualified employees from overseas.”

At BH-BL HighSchool, students have the opportunity to take several computer science courses (Exploring Computer Science, Computer Science Principles, AP Computer Science), as well as a Robotics course (new this year), where students apply engineering concepts and programming skills as they design, build and program robots for competition. They participate in the FIRST Robotics Competition, which is an internationally recognized organization. At the elementary and middle level, there are plans to weave basic computer science principles into core subjects across the district.

“Though computer programming and writing code can seem difficult at first glance, if students start early enough their brains simply become wired for it and the concept is second nature,” explains Goel. “It’s similar to learning another language—only this is computer language.”

Fifth-grader Corey Ward can attest to the difficulty of programming. And, after pondering the concepts of it for a bit he, had this to say: “This project is really fun. Well, it’s fun but it’s also slightly difficult. I like learning how code works, but it makes me think about how much code is necessary to make something perform one task. It makes me look at video games in a different way, that’s for sure. Oh, and robots too. Imagine how much programming is needed to make a robot lift an arm and grasp something. Wow, it’s like giving a machine a brain…I find that pretty cool.”