Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Computer Club for 4th and 5th graders: Year 2

Computer Club for 4th and 5th graders: 

Preparing our youth for tomorrow should include some basic instruction in computer programming.

In our day and age, knowledge of how a computer works and the logic of programming is increasingly a basic literacy. In many countries, computer programing and computer science is taught in grade school. We live in the Silicon Valley area, and for some reason it has not reached us yet. Not everyone needs to be a programmer, but every child can benefit from learning about programming, but talking about it is not enough so we decided to act.

We spoke about starting a computer club for some time. Then one day the principal said “go ahead”. But how do we organize it? “Don’t worry about it. Invite parents and students and suggest some things and see what they say”. And we did. And then our elementary school had a computer club. It was almost as simple as that.

At first it was just Ms. Young C, and me. We did not know what to expect. The first day of the club for the first year, Ms. Young C and I were sitting in the computer lab waiting for the kids to show up. I told Young that maybe 8 or 12 kids would show up. She agreed. Wow were we wrong!

Over 35 kids showed up that day and I think we peaked around 40 kids that year. This year, our second year, there was just no room (peak attendance was close to 120, and we have at least 80+ regulars). We were filling up the library and lab with computers and Ms Young C and other parent volunteers split up the club into three clubs. I think over 150 kids have been exposed to computer programming since we started, and to be honest what the kids can do far exceeds my wildest expectation. 

The kids are excited about the club and the participation is very high. We have many parent volunteers and this could not exist without them. We also have Ms. Young C who manages the lab and volunteers her time for this effort. She is the cornerstone of the club and the main coordinator. Julie B, the principal of our elementary school, has encouraged and supported our efforts. I wish I had a full list of all of the parents and individuals who were involved because the list would be very long. One of the great things about our school is the staff and parents. Our school is a community and I am happy to be part of it. 

The Computer Club is much better this year than it was last. We learned a lot. The kids all finished a computer programming book. We use Scratch from MIT which was designed to teach children computer programming. They all wrote many programs. They all learned the basics of computer programming. Next year we plan on introducing harder concepts for the 5th graders who have been exposed this year. Next year the fifth graders will all work with Python or JavaScript. Many kids in the club have worked with Scratch, Python and JavaScript. Next year all 5th graders will.

Not every volunteer agrees exactly about the right way to manage the club. There are many opinions, but the important thing is that they are there, and the kids are getting exposure to computer programming and they get to socialize and work with other kids. We try to make computer programming fun and cool, and provide an environment where kids can experiment and learn. Everyone goes at their own pace, and we just want to provide a place were they can get exposure, and kids can socialize with other kids who are interested in computer programming and computer science. Also the kids are learning to work in teams, and the kids often teach other kids how to do things like upload music or images or video or how an “if block” or “for ever block” works. It is awesome to hear kids helping other kids. The best thing for me to hear is one kid ask “Hey how did you do that?” And see one child mentor another child. This is the environment we want to foster and it looks like we are having some success. I’d like to see some of the ways kids teach each other tricks for the XBox or minecraft get changed to kids teaching each other to program. There are many kids who study and program outside of the club. Our main goal is to start the fire, and see where it takes them. 

In our day and age, knowledge of how a computer works and the logic of programming is increasingly a basic literacy. Not everyone needs to be a programmer, but every child can benefit from learning a bit more about how a computer works since our lives are surrounded with computing devices. Be it smart phone, smart TVs, tablets, laptops, desktops, and more, they are surrounded with devices that are more powerful than supercomputers from a few decades ago. It is no longer an oddity but a commonality of our age. Preparing our youth for tomorrow should include some basic instruction in computer programming.

Skills like computer programming can engage students in math and science who would not usually be interested in academics.To write better programs, you need to learn new tricks, and the new tricks are found in algebra, trig, statistics, etc. books.

Programming is a real world skill that can inculcate some kids with an appreciation of logic, math and science who might not get it through traditional means. Learning programming augments and encourages academics by allowing kids to see and build real world application of math and science that they can interact with.

Not every child has a love for academics, I speak from experience when I say my love of education started with computing and electronics. Building circuits and programs, and then seeing the equations results in a working product that I could use and interact with inspired me. It awoke my desire to learn more. I believe that computer programming can get children who might not be academically inclined to develop an interests in Math and science. I know that it was for me. My first experience with computer programming was when I was ten years old at the YMCA in Owen Hills Maryland. I wanted to share my love of computer programming with kids that were my age when I was introduced to it. These kids are a lot sharper than I was at that age and are much more familiar with computers than I was at that age.

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