High school mentors prove coding can be fun

Photos by Sarah Ann Jump/The Herald
"Wooooooow, so cool. I love this," said Ireland Elementary first-grader Arianna Jara as she played a coding game during Hour of Code on Wednesday at the school in Ireland.


IRELAND — When you think of a computer coder or programmer, you probably don’t picture someone tapping an Apple iPad to guide a multi-colored ball of fuzz around the inside of a bright maze.

But this week, members of Jasper High School’s Advanced Placement Computer Science class showed first- and second-graders at Ireland Elementary and Fifth Street School that in its most basic form, coding can be an experience much more engaging than simply typing orders into a command prompt. Wednesday, it took the form of the video game app described above.

“It’s not that hard,” Ireland first-grader Decker Ruhe said with a smile as he watched his fuzzball tumble across the screen to its goal.

Ireland Elementary first-grader Decker Ruhe played a coding game on an iPad during Hour of Code on Wednesday at the school in Ireland.

And part of the exercise’s ease was due to the 16 high schoolers who visited the younger students and walked them through the basics of the game — called Smeeborg — and also answered any questions that came up along the way.

The older kids were there to promote Hour of Code, a global movement designed to demystify code and broaden participation in the field of computer science. The program has grown internationally as well as locally, and the high school mentors said getting the chance to work with the elementary students was an experience they relished.

“It’s kind of cool because I never had the opportunity to do anything like this (in first grade),”said Jacob Hessler, a senior at Jasper High School. “I always loved computers, but I never really had anybody showing me how to program and do little things like that, so it’s really cool to see kids now getting into it and how they find it super fun.”

This marked the second year the corporation planned Hour of Code programming, but it was the first year that high school mentors volunteered their time to work with the elementary-age kids. The corporation eLearning coach, Dana Kunz, said the mentorship was the corporation’s main focus for this year’s event. True to the program’s name, the students donated their time in hour-long chunks.

Ireland Elementary first-grader Mason Skelton, center, raised his hand to participate in an exercise led by Jasper High School seniors Jacob Hessler, left, and Lucas Eby during Hour of Code on Wednesday at the school in Ireland. The high schoolers used the example of teaching a robot how to wash its hands as a way to teach the first-graders that an algorithm is a set of steps or rules.

Ireland first grade teacher Kelly Shields was initially skeptical as to what coding would look like in her classroom. Would the kids just be bored?

After the hour-long program kicked off Wednesday morning, though, she was all-in.

“They love it,” Shields said. “I don’t even think they realize what they’re coding. To them, it’s a game.”

Cheers filled the rooms when the students completed a level while teachers and high school mentors bounced from child to child, making sure they understood the controls and objective of the exercise.

On the surface, the kids were just using directional arrows to tell their fuzzballs which direction to turn when they approached an intersection in the mazes. They needed to plan each of their movements before pushing a start button and watching the ball dance around the paths and collect coins before hitting the finish line (if they succeeded) or getting stuck inside (if they failed).

Ireland Elementary first-grader Reagan King, right, flashed a thumbs up to signal her success in a coding game to Jasper High School senior Lucas Eby, left, as Breanna Smith looked on during Hour of Code on Wednesday at the school in Ireland.

By doing so in a step-by-step manner, they were familiarizing themselves with basic coding concepts.

Kunz said anyone can engage in similar activities by visiting code.org. All Jasper students can log in with school credentials and the website will retain their progress for independent study advancement. Because even while teachers agreed having the mentors present was huge for the kids, being able to work on the material alone is just as important.

“Many coders learn independently,” Kunz said. “If the interest and aptitude is there, the learning is limitless.”

The code.org curriculum is utilized throughout the year in grade five at Tenth Street Elementary, grade six at Jasper Middle School and grade nine at the high school. This week also marks Computer Science Education Week, an annual program dedicated to inspiring K-12 students to take interest in computer science.

Ireland Elementary first-grader Evie Gunselman received help from Jasper High School senior Jacob Hessler as the students played a coding game on iPads during Hour of Code on Wednesday at the school in Ireland.

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