Virginia Beach elementary school students learn new language: code

Good Girls Write Code
Linkhorn Park Elementary School is hosting an after school coding club during the month of February. Students taking part in the program will learn the basics of computer programming using an MIT-developed program called Scratch. (Mariah Pohl)

VIRGINIA BEACH — At just 10 years old, Heena Gurbuxani already knows she wants to be a doctor — and she says coding will help make that dream a reality.

Gurbuxani is one of more than five dozen kids taking part in an after-school computer coding course at Linkhorn Park Elementary school.

The five-week program is being hosted in collaboration with Good Girls Write Code, a non-profit organization that promotes coding among young people, particularly girls, who are often underrepresented in the coding community.

“I decided to take the class because I though it would be really fun,” Gurbuxani said. “When I’m a doctor, coding will help me when I assign medicine to people.”

5th grade teacher Pia Ramirez provides instruction to Antoine MacFarlande and Noah Hawkins. (Mariah Pohl)
5th grade teacher Pia Ramirez provides instruction to Antoine MacFarlande and Noah Hawkins. (Mariah Pohl)

Coding, or computer programming, is not a new subject. In fact, it facilitates many aspects of daily life, and the rise of technology has led to an increased need for coding-related jobs.

This has caused many school districts around the nation to consider adding coding to the regular curriculum, Linkhorn Park Elementary School Instructional Technology Specialist Tim Bakner said.

“Coding is becoming an increasing presence in everything from our cell phone apps to the tire pressure sensors in your car,” Bakner said. “A lot of careers down the line will involve some type of computer programming knowledge, so we want to go ahead and offer these experiences.”

Bakner acknowledged coding may sound like a complex subject, but said it boils down to giving different commands that make an object, like a cartoon person, perform certain actions.

Proficient coders must learn coding languages to complete these kinds of tasks, but programs like Scratch, which was developed by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, make coding as simple as possible for beginners, Bakner said.

“Scratch bridges the gap for students that don’t know a coding language, but want to start using and understanding the concepts,” he said. “It’s kind of like using Google Translate. You don’t have to know a second language to translate a word into Spanish or French.”

Students used the MIT Scratch coding program to create a game with a cat and a mouse. (Mariah Pohl)
Students used the MIT Scratch coding program to create a game with a cat and a mouse. (Mariah Pohl)

Starting Feb. 1, students from second to fifth grade began using Scratch to create a game featuring a cat and mouse.

“Coding is cool because you get to make your own video games,” fifth grade student Alice Birtig said. “I like working with computers. I have my own laptop, and my dad teaches me how to use it.”

Birtig said she does not plan to pursue a career related to coding. Instead, she hopes to one day be a lawyer, but according to Bakner, a background in coding can be helpful in all career fields.

“If someone understands coding and how to work through the activities, it helps them critically think and gives them a more flexible mindset,” he said. “This background knowledge will help them go further in a whole slew of careers.”

Coding has already been merged with one of the school’s fifth grade history classes where students have coded characters to convey the concepts of the revolutionary war, Bakner said.

“We want to give kids the option to make something creative to present their knowledge, other than a pencil and paper,” he said. “Coding provides a kind of personalized learning where not everyone does the exact same thing.”

Coding may be a new topic for most students, but that hasn’t had a negative impact on the subject’s popularity, according to Bakner.

“We found quickly that we had more interest in the program than we originally anticipated. Right now, we’re reaching about one-third of our students in the building,” he said. “I’ve had to turn away maybe three dozen more students because we don’t have enough volunteers to help out.”

Next year, Bakner anticipates the school will be able to accommodate more than 150 students during the fall and spring semesters.

“The kids pick coding up so fast — faster than the teachers,” he said. “They have an open mindset and aren’t afraid to try new things. I think that’s pretty cool.”

Pohl may be reached at mariah@localvoicemedia.com

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