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Learning all about writing in code

By Staff | May 29, 2016

BEA sixth grade students Nick, Calli, Kylie and Gabriel show how the Ozo bot works.

It is not exactly a ‘secret’ code.

That is because many of the students at Blue Earth Area Elementary School are learning about coding, in one form or another. And, that is not a secret.

In fact, BEA students as young as kindergartners now know what an algorithm is even if most adults do not.

“It is basically thinking about doing something logically, in sequence, and then following those steps for anything they do,” says Gary Holmseth, who along with Jennifer Berkner, is in charge of this new teaching technique. “Those steps are the program code. Then they have to learn how to ‘debug’ or fix the code (the sequence of steps), if they don’t work and don’t get to the desired result.”

Here is how it can work.

Students in teacher Lindsey Johnson’s fifth grade classroom work in pairs to practice writing codes and then using them as a ‘navigator’ to guide the ‘driver.’

In BEA teacher Lindsey Johnson’s fifth grade class, the students pair up into two-person teams. One student is the ‘driver,’ the other is the ‘navigator.’

The navigator fills in a series of random boxes on a paper grid.

Then they have to write a code that will direct the driver around that same grid. Each line of code is something like “2u1r, 3d3l” which would mean two squares up and one to the right, then three squares down and three to the left. The driver and navigator cannot talk to each other, or look at each other’s papers, of course.

If the driver ends up with the same boxes filled in as the navigator had, then the code is a success. If it is not the same, then it has to be debugged.

In sixth grade, 20 math students are learning how to write a computer code that is then followed by a robot called an Ozo bot.

The Ozo bot up close.

“They have to determine what they want the Ozo bot to do,” Holmseth says. “It can stop for a determined amount of time, turn, things like that.”

The little robot then follows a trail and does just what the students wanted it to do. Of course, if it doesn’t, then there is some code debugging to be done.

In high school, the students will be learning how to create apps for phones and do some more creative things working with coding.

Why all this attention on coding and programming?

“First off, it fits into our four ‘C’s of learning we have,” Holmseth says. “Those are collaboration, creativity, critical thinking and communication. But there is more to it than that. It is a way to prepare our students for their future.”

Holmseth and Berkner say that 60 percent of the jobs these students will have after graduation have not even been created yet.

“This program is being sponsored nationwide by companies like Google, Microsoft and Verizon,” Holmseth says. “They say that by the year 2020, they will need 1.4 million computer programmers, and at the current rate of graduation, only 400,000 will be available.”

Holmseth, who is the 1:1 Initiative director, and Berkner, who is the school technology integration specialist, started learning all about this program back last July, and knew they wanted to implement it locally.

Then, there was a special workshop held on March 9 at BEA which 25 teachers from the area attended and learned about teaching coding.

“We had nine of our staff at the workshop,” Holmseth says. “The others were from New Prague, Maple River, USC, St. Clair and Lake Crystal.”

The teachers at BEA have embraced the program and are integrating it into their classrooms faster than Holmseth and Berkner expected.

“This is really exciting,” Holmseth says. “This is looking ahead to the future.”