Right before lunch, a room full of sixth-grade students are typically struggling to stay interested in anything except counting down the minutes until they head to the cafeteria.
On Thursday, though, the sixth-graders in Amy Bates' math class at Tanner High School didn't want to break for lunch as they solved word problems. That's not the typical response a teacher expects to get at the end of the lesson, but these word problems were cleverly disguised as a digital puzzle designed to introduce elementary and middle school children to software coding.
This week students across Alabama have been participating in Computer Science Education Week, which emphasizes career fields in technology. The highlight of the week is an “Hour of Code” session where students had the opportunity to try out game design for themselves.
“It's a different kind of learning than what they're used to,” said Casie Barksdale, technology coordinator at Tanner. “They're seeing that they can kind of think through these problems.”
Barksdale invited her husband, Jonathan, lead software architect of Athens-based software firm Untether, to talk to the sixth-graders about his job and share his expertise. Jonathan Barksdale said he loves introducing children to coding, because some students pick it up quickly and enjoy it enough to think they might want to work in that field.
“It's a great thing for you guys to look at and think, 'Hey, I might like to do this,'” Jonathan Barksdale told the students.
The students were tasked with aligning codes of commands to make a character from the popular video game “Minecraft” perform a specific action in a set order of steps. They needed to figure out which commands would make the character do exactly what was assigned. Students talked with one another and shared tips for success.
Bates and the Barksdales often stepped in to offer a helpful suggestion, but also learned from the kids themselves. Most of the time, though, 20 pairs of eyes were glued to computer screens, their faces stuck in a look of pure concentration. Casie Barksdale compared it to a look some people get when they play chess.
Often when a puzzle was solved, a small, triumphant noise would issue from the computer and a smile broke out across a student's face who would punch the air and exclaim, “Yes!”
Other times, the look of concentration broke into a frustrated frown and a sound of aggravation came from behind the screen. Bates would laugh as she tried to help a young girl proceed, only for them both to be wrong, and teacher and student would start again.
“This is so fun,” Jonathan Barksdale told The News Courier. “This creates an opportunity for us to work together on a common purpose.”
Casie Barksdale said the “Hour of Code” workshops have already shown a positive difference in Tanner students. When she started the program last year, a boy took to the puzzles with ease and grasped the concepts quickly, and this was a boy who was otherwise considered in need of tutoring in traditional areas of learning, she said. And, as evident on Thursday, students are taking notice of something old, presented to them in a new, more relatable light.
“They think they're playing a game, but they're actually building on some of their standards,” Casie Barksdale said.
The potential for children to develop innovative concepts with software exists now, because it's easy for students to be near a computer and learn programming, Jonathan Barksdale added. It's different than most career fields because it doesn't require a lot of up-front cost or specialized knowledge.
“Software is something that is very accessible,” he said. “Kids, even at a young age, have access to it.”