Youngsters are excited by activities that are not only fun but prepare them for good, high-paying jobs

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Second grade Harvey Clarke teacher Barbara Barker shows a student how to use a virtual reality system to examine a human heart. Harvey Clarke Elementary School students watched a human heart beat, built their own cats, drew roads for electronic cars and directed electronic characters along pathways.

It was all in a day's work Tuesday, Dec. 5, during the school's annual Hour of Code, which brings each class into the library to learn about coding and computer science for a portion of the school day.

"Studies have shown 90 percent of parents want their kids to learn coding in school," said Barbara Barker, a second grade teacher at Harvey Clarke. "This all looks like fun and games but it gets them interested in learning to code."

Coders write instructions computers will be able to understand, creating products like websites, mobile apps, video games or computer programs.

This is the third year Barker has organized the event. It's important for children to learn these skills early on, she said, because so many professions require computer-programming skills, whether it's working as an official computer coder or building a website for a business.

The activities also help foster creativity in students and keep students engaged.

The Hour of Code movement occurs every year in December during the nationwide Computer Science Education Week, when educators encourage students to explore the field.

Barker recently participated in a conference centered on equity in STEM fields, which strengthened her resolve to introduce all students — particularly minorities and girls — to computer science. That's important because many computer-related professions are growing fast and offer high wages.

Women exposed to computer science in high school are ten times more likely to make it their major in college, according to Hour of Code promotional materials.

"It's great to see the kids getting exposure to what they may not show interest in otherwise," said Troy Jorgenson, a parent volunteer and professional coder who took his first coding class in college and realized he loved it. "It broadens their view and shows them what's out there."

Jorgenson helped students understand the basics of coding and was impressed by how they shifted into problem-solving mode and started thinking critically when they approached the array of activities. They made a lot of progress in a short time period, he said.

NEWS-TIMES PHOTO: STEPHANIE HAUGEN - Students drew pathways using different colors and block lengths to direct an electronic car. "They're basically learning to communicate in a different language — they're communicating with a computer," he said.

Some children drew lines made up of adjoining blocks in varying colors and lengths, which directed small cars to spin, speed up and change directions. Other students looked inside the human body on a virtual reality system, watching as each layer of a heart peeled away and revealed a deeper level. Others built animals out of small blocks that resembled pixels, while still others experimented with age-appropriate coding programs on iPads.

It was clear the activities excited them.

"Look at this!" one boy yelled.

"Oh, my gosh," said another as he discovered what he could make a simple character do on screen.

"Did you see that?" said one girl as she watched a student explore the virtual-reality heart.

"It's super fun," said Cali, a fourth grader who built her own animal with pixel blocks. "I like experimenting with different stuff and I want a job where I can be someone who builds a lot of stuff."

"I think it's a lot of fun," said Ryan, a fourth grader who was trying to move his MineCraft character around a river.

Harvey Clarke fourth-grade teacher Amanda Waldron said her students had been looking forward to the event all week. "They're important skills but it's also something they're interested in and that's important for learning," she said. "Technology will be a big part of the rest of their lives."

Student teacher Megan Togami said the day helped her understand coding better and the role it can play in the classroom. She said it was shocking how the youth were uninterruptedly engaged throughout the day:

"Even when something was hard for them, they were persistent and persevered."

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