Coding: Painting with Numbers

At 7:30 yesterday morning, I walked over to the Computer Science and Engineering Lab to chat with middle school students as they created geometric art. Their canvas? The computer screen. As one student explained to me, “Coding is like painting with numbers.”

Welcome to week three of the new middle school Coding Club. So many students clamored to join this early morning offering that Ms. Melissa Burkhead, the sponsor, ended up creating two different clubs to accommodate the 40 participants: one that meets on Mondays and Wednesdays and one that meets on Tuesdays and Thursdays.

This month, Ms. Burkhead also advertised “open lab” afternoons for fifth and sixth graders. But when 35 students showed up to the first open lab session, she quickly modified her plans! To better serve their needs, she placed students into two smaller groups. Each group will have 14 opportunities to attend afternoon coding sessions.

Ms. Burkhead is delighted – but not surprised — by this enthusiasm. We have seen the momentum building in the middle school.

For the last two years, math teacher Abbie Cornelius has offered introductory coding lessons as part of the sixth grade Skills for Tomorrow curriculum, exposing all her students to the basic principles of computer science. Mrs. Cornelius, Ms. Burkhead, and Dr. Ginger Alford have also led Hour of Code programs at The Fort Worth Museum of Science and History for the past three years and seen the enthusiasm grow among TVS students in attendance.

A coding club was the logical next step.

According to Ms. Burkhead, the club will provide “hands-on experience centered on programming projects that emphasize computer science and mathematics principles as they apply to areas of art, visual design, games, science, and special effects.”

Over the course of the semester, students will study topics such as data types, declaring variables, assignment, arithmetic operators, branching structures, loops, random functions, methods, parameters, event-processing, state concepts, scope rules, and user interaction.

That might sound like a different language, and in some ways it is: coding is sometimes described as a new “global language” or a “new literacy,” and nationally there is a growing movement to include more computer science in the K12 curriculum.

There’s an economic argument for teaching coding: The Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts there will be over one million computing job openings by 2022.

U.S. Chief Technology Officer Todd Park says that “technology and computers are very much at the core of our economy going forward. To be prepared for the demands of the 21st century—and to take advantage of its opportunities—it is essential that more of our students today learn basic computer programming skills, no matter what field of work they want to pursue.”

But there is also a creative argument – one captured by the student who described coding as “painting with numbers.” Coding is a powerful skill for students who are eager to design and invent. College president Maria Klawe said, “Coding is today’s language of creativity. All our children deserve a chance to become creators instead of consumers of computer science.”

Or as Ms. Burkhead told me, teaching coding is “imperative – but it’s also great fun.”



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