Thinking like a computer

Kindergartner Rhys Roduner plays a game called Kodable during Krista Sweckard’s technology class. The game is designed to help young students learn to “think like a computer” and learn basic computer programming concepts, according to Sweckard.

As students from Mrs. Wodahl’s kindergarten class walked into the classroom of Meadowlark Elementary School technology teacher Krista Sweckard, they were told that today is going to be special.

“Today, we are going to be playing a special game,” Sweckard said. “It will teach you how to think like a computer.”

“BORING!” shouted Eli Schiffer.

“Well, why don’t you try it first?” Sweckard gently suggested.

As Schiffer started playing Kodable – a game in which students use basic computer science concepts to help a fuzzy blue alien find his way home – he was hit with a revelation.

“Wait a minute!” he said. “This is fun!”

This revelation is one Sweckard hopes to share with all her students during Meadowlark’s Hour of Code events over the next two weeks. The events, which will introduce computer programming concepts to the youngest students in Johnson County, were launched on Monday in conjunction with National Computer Science Education Week.

“As you heard, a lot of kids think computer science is boring,” Sweckard said. “But I hope that these events teach them that it can actually be a lot of fun to use your brain and solve problems – even when you’re just a little kindergartner.”

The hour of code, which encourages students worldwide to spend at least one hour learning how to program, was launched four years ago by the nonprofit organization code.org to demystify computer science and “prove that it was not just for nerds,” according to Sweckard.

“Computer science is for everyone,” Sweckard said. “Every industry today is tied to computers in some way. Understanding how a computer works really enables kids to understand how the world works. These skills will give our kids a better chance in the future, even if they decide to not go into computer science as a career.”

Though some might balk at teaching computer science to students who haven’t even learned to read yet, Sweckard said the time was right.

“It’s important that we start teaching them this now as their brains are forming,” Sweckard said. “If we do, these skills will stay with them throughout their life and help them as they get older. Learning the basics now will make it a lot easier when they step into a college or high school classroom and start coding for real.”

Still, there are challenges associated with introducing basic computer science concepts such as creative problem solving to kindergartners.

“The kids have a very short attention span,” Sweckard said. “Spending an hour doing hard analytical thinking can be pretty difficult for them at this age.”

As if to prove Sweckard’s point, most of the students stopped playing with Kodable within 10 minutes and moved on to less mentally strenuous games on the computer. Still, five students – including Schiffer – continued helping the fuzzy blue alien throughout the class period.

“At the very least, we got kids working on coding, which is pretty exciting,” Sweckard said. “They’re going to need these skills for the rest of their lives, and there’s no better time for them to learn it than now.”

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