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Kids Coding: From Kindergarten To College

Kealey Bultena
Adysen Moet and fellow sixth graders design video games at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sioux Falls.

The International Coding Competition in Rapid City and recent international hacking events have prompt people to consider coding. It provides the scaffold for computers and smartphones and apps. Educators must decide how kids can learn code, what they should understand, and when they should start.

Take a peek inside this coding classroom. The room is warm. It’s afternoon. The school year draws to a close, and sixth-grader Adysen Moet plays a video game.

"I’m trying to jump and get on the icebergs, but it’s really hard because there are these little penguins or something. If you get hit five times by them, then you lose lives, and you can gain lives back, too," Moet says. "So I just died."

Moet sits in her Patrick Henry Middle School classroom. Two dozen kids appear to shirk their educational responsibilities, but they’re learning to design video games. Jason Whiting teaches this class.

"In sixth grade, they spend a lot of time learning the context of different languages, and so our main focus is Python," Whiting says. "They’re doing it through a game-based program that we use called Code Combat where they have to solve a problem – and they have to physically write the code to make their avatar do what they want it to do."

"She likes puzzles. She sees a problem. She's got to find the right piece to fit. That's all computer programming is."

Whiting says technology works because people write the instructions for equipment. He says sixth-graders learn to process and strategize; they compile commands that direct a warrior on the screen to shiny, blue gems.

"Write it, and then run. See if it works. If it doesn’t, they realize, ‘Okay, here’s the problem,’ and go back and fix their code," Whiting says. "Then they get the bonuses at the end for that clean code. That’s what they’re trying to get, because they want to get as many gems as they can."

Anthony Edwards demonstrates his tactics. One side of his screen displays his game board. On the other side, he selects programming code.

"If you were in the hero’s arms, if you actually were him, you would figure, like, move right, move down, move up, move up again, and then move right," Edwards says.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Sixth graders at Patrick Henry Middle School in Sioux Falls

Edwards stops midway through to help a classmate. Whiting encourages his students to collaborate. He says most middle schoolers enjoy video games, so he engages them in creating their own.

Rob Honomichl is an instructor at Dakota State University in Madison. He types some simple code, and he removes one semi-colon to demonstrate the most common mistake his students make.

"So when we recompile it, it says, ‘Hey, there’s an expected semicolon inside there. You forgot something.’ That’s the number one error," Honomichl says.

Honomichl teaches new college kids how to code. South Dakota has K-12 standards for technology but none for computer science. He answers honestly when asked whether students are prepared for coding in higher education.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Robert Honomichl is an instructor at DSU.

"Um… No. Some are. Some aren’t, right? It depends on what school they came from," Honomichl says. "You know, all the Sioux Falls schools offer AP Computer Science, so if we get a student that comes out of that program and into ours, they’re ahead of a lot of students. We have students that come from very small schools or out-of-state that may or may not have programming involved inside of it, so then you just kind of hope that they have the desire to learn how to do it."

A Darth Vader figure looms in his office as Honomhicl explains that students don’t necessarily need extensive coding training.

"I’ve had some of my best students be the ones that have never programmed before. They’ll take it in. They’ll think about it. They’ll process it. It’s those logic skills, it’s that breaking down a problem type things that is the ideal student," Honomichl says.

He says he spends time reversing bad habits self-taught students have. Some students are just sloppy.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

"Attention to detail is huge. About the first couple weeks of class, everybody does that. So they put in a ‘u’, right? Because ‘stdio’ looks like ‘studio,’ and so just our brains tell us to type that in, and then they get a big error," Honomichl says. "Right. ‘That’s what I meant for it to do.’ It’s not like writing an English paper, where it’s like, ‘Well, you get what I mean’ – which we do. We get what you mean, but the computer’s so stupid that it doesn’t actually understand what you’re doing."

Honomichl says coding is a more hip, cool term for computer programming.

HONOMICHL: It takes a little bit more away from the programming being scary and nerdy and makes it a lot cooler.
BULTENA:  Right, like you don’t have this immediate image of people who are mostly antisocial with glasses and bad hair sitting there crouched over a computer in a dark room.
HONOMICHL: That is very accurate to the stereotype, but I don’t think we see that, right? I have a daughter who’s in third grade and just loves to get on and do different things.

Honomichl says students exposed to coding in their elementary, middle, and high school classes… prove that you don’t need to be a nerd to code.

Sixth grade teacher Jason Whiting looks over his student’s shoulder.

Anthony Edwards names his video game No Fall Damage. He wants players to think a fall is failure. Edwards smirks and walks his avatar off a ledge. He passes the level.

EDWARDS: You could literally just go that.
WHITING: You put a cheat right in the game. [That] might be the first-time I’ve seen that. He added a little tiny subtlety that you’re not going to notice to try.
EDWARDS: So I put two sections of goal blocks, and so this is the way that most people would think of.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Anthony Edwards

Edwards demonstrates how to lose his level and the way to win. He says he’s still planning his future. Both Edwards and Adysen Moet say that may involve code.

"If I end up to be a computer person or something like Mr. Whiting is doing, then I’m going to need all these skills, so I’m glad that I have this class," Moet says.

Moet wants to be a cosmetologist. Her teacher Jason Whiting saying coding can serve her. He says that job outside of information technology requires Moet to recognize clients’ problems and solve them.

"I’ve got a four-year-old daughter who is into programming, but she doesn’t know it," Whiting says. "She likes puzzles. She sees a problem. She’s got to find the right piece to fit. That’s all computer programming is."

Whiting says kindergarten teachers can expose kids to code, so they establish a foundation for critical thinking to leverage later.

Teachers at Patrick Henry Middle School emphasize that students should be responsible digital citizens.

Sioux Falls School District leaders are specifically integrating coding. This fall, three elementary schools are set for computer science immersion programs. That means children have some coding work each day, and teachers incorporate instruction that relates to programming. Superintendent Brian Maher answers questions about the connection between education, trends in technology, and whether it's a school's role to respond to skills gaps in the job market.

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB
Patrick Henry Middle School / Sioux Falls

Kealey Bultena grew up in South Dakota, where her grandparents took advantage of the state’s agriculture at nap time, tricking her into car rides to “go see cows.” Rarely did she stay awake long enough to see the livestock, but now she writes stories about the animals – and the legislature and education and much more. Kealey worked in television for four years while attending the University of South Dakota. She started interning with South Dakota Public Broadcasting in September 2010 and accepted a position with television in 2011. Now Kealey is the radio news producer stationed in Sioux Falls. As a multi-media journalist, Kealey prides herself on the diversity of the stories she tells and the impact her work has on people across the state. Kealey is always searching for new ideas. Let her know of a great story! Find her on Facebook and twitter (@KealeySDPB).