Andover Townsman, Andover, MA

December 19, 2013

A 'code' for life

AHS students dabble in computer programming

By Dustin Luca

---- — For many Andover High School students, a global effort to get kids writing computer code proved more than a reprieve from the rigors of their typical daily syllabus. It was a chance to dabble in what one student called “a life skill” for today’s youths.

Last week, 60 classes at Andover High participated in an “Hour of Code,” an initiative organized as part of Computer Science Education Week.

Throughout the school, students in English, math and even physical education classes were working in environments with names like Java and Python — two popular computer programming and scripting languages.

Many of the students were using drag-and-drop instructions to tell programs what to do. Others were writing straight code.

Angela Vu, a freshman, worked with the Python computer language to set up a “jump” instruction for an on-screen character.

“You have to tell the computer how to do it,” she said.

Angela said even a base level of familiarity with writing computer code will become helpful in the future.

“If you’re on a team and have to explain to a programmer what you have to do, having that understanding improves so much,” she said. “You’re a better communicator.”

In another classroom, enriched algebra teacher Krista Lambroukos watched as a couple dozen USB-powered “finch” robots buzzed around on computer benches and the floor.

“Now here’s a challenge,” she told her students, who were using a computer in the class for the first time. “Can you make it move in a square?”

Molly Rocca, a sophomore, proceeded to send instructions to two wheels on the front of one of the robots. Mismatching the power levels of the wheels would cause the robot to turn or change direction while in motion.

Molly said programming has become an important life skill for every high-schooler.

“I absolutely love this,” Molly said. “It’s just so cool that, in computer language, you can talk to a machine and make it do something — transfer what you want to happen to a little light-up robot, a satellite or surgical machine, the kind of thing you couldn’t do without programming.”

Minda Reidy, a teacher who helped run the Hour of Code at the high school, said the goal of the initiative was to get 10 million students worldwide, many of whom aren’t even taking a computer course, to simply try their hand at code.

“(The intent) was to give the students a chance to just see what it is and how to do it. They’ll see it isn’t so mystical, so scary,” Reidy said.

By mid-afternoon last Thursday, almost 800 Andover High students had participated in the program. Feedback showed the lesson was more than a success.

“Eighty percent enjoy it; 71 percent think programming couldn’t be too hard,” Reidy said as she scanned her cellphone for live data coming out of student surveys.

Perhaps most telling, she said, was that 62 percent of students had no interest in programming before they tried it. After their “Hour of Code” introduction, the number of disinterested dropped to 21 percent.

“That’s pretty good,” she said. “I’m excited by that.”