Twenty-five pairs of eyes are glued to a grid projected on the whiteboard at the front of the classroom. The second graders eagerly analyze the puzzle before them: a mysterious code that, once cracked, enables them to assign a number to each grid square and color it black or leave it white, accordingly. As the squares fill up -- or not -- an image gradually emerges, and the room erupts in wild guesses: “It’s a train!” “A bus!” “I think it’s a dinosaur!” By the time the entire picture -- a teacup and saucer -- is revealed to a crescendo of “ooohs” and “aaahs,” the students are hooked. In one hour, they’ve completed an exercise in Image Representation -- how images are stored and transmitted digitally -- and learned a fundamental concept of computer science: problem solving. They’ve learned it’s doable, and they’ve loved it. The Hour of Code is a success.
“The Hour of Code is a national campaign during Computer Science Education Week, to teach students what computer science and computer programming is all about,” explains David Nassar, Computer Science Department Chair. Nassar and his fellow computer science teachers -- Technology Integrator Jonathan Ringer and Educational Technology Coordinator David Piemme -- utilized the campaign to introduce Lower and Middle School students to WT’s newly created computer science department through special one-hour activities giving students a tantalizing peek into the wonders of computer science.
“What we hope students gain is not so much knowing what computer science is, but questioning computer science,” reflects Ringer. “Giving them hands-on experience has allowed a lot of those light bulbs to go on. We hope it ignites the desire to explore further.”
Lower School activities were largely “unplugged” to tangibly illustrate concepts that are the building blocks of computer science, and to enable students to move naturally from theory to application. Embodying robots, Pre-K students learned how they, like computers, act or don’t act when given commands.
“Commands like ‘clap your hands’ and ‘nod your head’ were all met with enthusiasm,” says Nassar, “but a command like ‘multiply 1000 by 2000’ caused the students to pause. This allowed Ringer to explain in an age-appropriate way that if a robot does not understand the command, it cannot complete the requested task.” Students then directed a robot -- Nassar -- to build a tower out of wooden blocks, which underscored the importance of “…(writing) commands that the computer understands. If they directed me to ‘pick up a block and put it there’ I would pick up a block, but not know what to do. They had to be very specific, as in ‘put it on top of the square block.’”
A similar scene unfolded in the Kindergarten wing, where students analyzed the process of dancing. “I was very pleased that the Kindergarteners understood how to break up the procedure of dancing into smaller, more manageable pieces,” remarks Nassar.
Both Pre-K and Kindergarten students then examined these processes using iPads and an app called Daisy the Dinosaur. “Daisy is commanded to ‘jump,’ ‘spin,’ and ‘move,’” Nassar explains. “After the students gave Daisy the directives, hitting the ‘play’ button on the iPad allowed them to view these actions to see if they were satisfied with the results.”
To choruses of “Awesome!” and “This is really fun!” first through fifth grades students learned how images are stored and sent by programmable devices. They constructed and reconstructed images -- like the teacup and saucer -- from ‘code,’ seeing first-hand how photographs of the family dog, say, are broken down into small elements called pixels, then transmitted through cell phones or computers.
“We practiced by looking at a picture and writing it as numbers, and then we did the reverse,” says Nassar of the exercise matching black and white grid squares with corresponding numbers. “[Students] understood…that computers communicate numbers over wires. It’s exciting to me that in first grade they can grasp these concepts. If they can do this now and have this sort of foundation, imagine what they can do once they reach the Upper School!”
An App in an Hour
Middle School students plunged right into programming using Processing, a popular language aimed at teaching the fundamentals of programming in a visual way.
“We wrote a small mobile app that enabled them to make a fish move across the screen,” shares Nassar.
Students quickly learned how to create a tank and a fish, and how to position, enlarge, and color them. Fueled by enthusiastic whoops, they wrote commands to steer their fish from right to left and back again. Many students left eager for more. Eva Boeglin ‘20 carefully saved her work onto her jump drive, inspired to continue at home. “I hope to make future progress on the file. I love the programming application.”
"I honestly didn’t think I could make an app,” admits Chiara Bishop-Robbins ‘20. “I was pleasantly surprised how quickly it went. After I made the rectangle move, I felt accomplished. It was that feeling that made me want to do more than just make a rectangle move across the screen.”
“I was really excited when I found out that we were programming with codes because it is something that fascinates me,” adds Josh Bellin ‘20. “It was very fun, and I felt like I had accomplished something. The color of my fish was red, and when I made it swim across the screen, it felt great!”
The Programmers and Innovators of Tomorrow
As Department Chair, Nassar is eager to build upon WT’s already-robust computer science program. He is exhilarated by the students’ response to Hour of Code, and the potential that’s apparent even in the earliest grades.
“The students’ insightful responses made it all the more evident that here, even in our four and five year old students, are the programmers and innovators of tomorrow.”
“Programming and computer science skills can be beneficial to all students,” notes Piemme. “Not every student turns out to be a true techie, but the thinking and problem solving skills from programming can be used anywhere.”
And that’s exactly the point, proclaims Nassar. The skills developed through computer science -- including problem solving, logic, the ability to define a problem and identify its constraints -- are as relevant to doctors and artists as they are to software developers and computer programmers, and he fully intends for WT students to master those skills to the best of their abilities.