Middle school students take part in ‘Hour of Code’

Middle school students take part in ‘Hour of Code’

Ryan Bolanos, left, a 7th-grader, was on level 7 of a “Minecraft”-themed coding activity during last Friday’s “Hour of Code” event. In the background, social studies teacher Andrea Pleau helps 7th-grader Joe Coelho who is using blocks of code to create a game. (Breeze photos by Melanie Thibeault)

SMITHFIELD – Full of excitement and energy, students at Gallagher Middle School were clicking away on their Chromebooks last Friday during an hour-long crash course in computer science.

At 12:30 p.m., half of the 7th-grade class paused their usual schedule to make time for the “Hour of Code,” an international event hosted by the website Code.org, a nonprofit which teaches students the basics of computer programming. Kids can create online games and complete challenges with themes such as “Minecraft,” “Star Wars,” and “Frozen” by moving blocks of code to write codes.

Student Hannah Kennedy, who was writing code to make Anna and Elsa from the movie “Frozen” ice skate, said that she’s not a big video game fan and was hesitant going into the activity.

“I thought it was going to be really boring, but I’m really enjoying it,” Kennedy told The Valley Breeze & Observer, adding that she was “very surprised” about how much fun she was having.

Ken Hopkins, assistant principal at Gallagher, said that the middle school decided to try “Hour of Code” for the first time this year because two grades of students now have their own Chromebook laptops to use.

All 6th-, 7th-, and 8th-graders participated either on Monday, Dec. 7 or Friday, Dec. 11.

Students at Smithfield High School have been doing the “Hour of Code” since it began three years ago, Michael Deslauriers, high school math and computer science teacher, told The Observer.

This year, similar to Gallagher, high school students had the chance to write codes use coding blocks with “Minecraft,” “Star Wars,” and “Frozen” themes or to write actual lines of code, he said.

The middle school, Hopkins said, is also hoping to expand coding instruction and expose more students to computer science because “that’s where the job market is.”

Rhode Island currently has 1,986 open computing jobs, compared to 604,689 available positions across the country, according to statistics from Code.org.

The average salary for a computer programming job in the Ocean State is $85,431.

In 2013, 290 computer science students graduated in Rhode Island, of which 17 percent were women, the website notes. Seven schools offered Advanced Placement computer science classes.

Andrea Pleau, a social studies teacher at Gallagher, agreed with Hopkins, saying that Code.org is a great way to introduce students to science, technology, engineering, and math, especially kids who “wouldn’t normally be exposed to this.”

Learning a new skill or interest at this age could “stimulate thoughts for a career path” that they may not have considered otherwise, Pleau said.

“I never had the chance when I was in high school or middle school,” she said.

Pleau and other teachers took part in a training session, so they could help their students, said Paul Barrette, director of technology for the Smithfield School Department.

The website gives directions, hints, and videos to help students understand basic coding language and techniques. From there, they can move blocks of code to create games or move characters on their screens.

Next year, the School Department may try bringing the “Hour of Code” to 4th- and 5th-graders at the elementary schools, Barrette said.

Stopping in several middle school classrooms last Friday, the students’ excitement was obvious: they were laughing and working together to solve problems, sometimes shouting when they made it to a new level.

“It’s really fun. I like it,” 7th-grader Ryan Bolanos said. “I’d like to learn more about it.”

Bolanos, who was on level 7 of the “Minecraft” theme, said that the program is easy at the beginning, as it explains the basics, and then gets harder with each level.

Kennedy enjoyed the challenge of moving to the next level, she said. “It makes you want to keep trying.”

She said that she found coding hard at the beginning, but after Barrette helped her by sharing tips, it became easier to navigate.

“It’s something I might do in my free time,” Kennedy said. “It’s addicting.”

In the same group as Bolanos, 7th-grader Joe Coelho was having fun creating a game that involved moving a shark character through a space in between two brick walls by pressing keys to adjust how high or low the shark moved. “It’s hard,” he said, smiling at his accomplishment.

When Harley Mason, who was on “Minecraft” level 11, first heard that she and her classmates would be participating in the “Hour of Code,” she said, “I was actually excited. I thought it was going to be harder than it is … I’m getting the hang of it.”

Seventh-graders Hannah Kennedy, front, and Harley Mason use blocks to write code during Gallagher Middle School’s “Hour of Code” event last Friday. Both girls said they were having fun learning about computer science.