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What Sparks an Interest in Computer Programming?

Thursday, March 26, 2015 -- Darin Rasmussen

I recently attended SXSWedu, which featured a wide variety of sessions and providers focused on programming, coding, and computing. It got me thinking about what we can do to spark an interest in programming for our students. Basic knowledge of coding and other computer skills are becoming a necessity, and there are so many different options for teaching students these topics. What methods are going to be the most effective?

Let me share what sparked an interest for me in software and IT. When I was in elementary and middle school, I used to write code in BASIC on my Commodore computer. My family was fortunate to get a computer before almost anyone else I knew, thanks to a raffle at a local furniture store that my mother entered. As a promotion, they were giving away a computer to one lucky winner. After a few weeks, she got the call that our name had been chosen. We were incredibly surprised and happy. A day or two later, she brought the machine home. The thing might as well have come from NASA—we knew so little about computers. Over time, though, it had a bigger impact than I realized.

As an example, I remember staying up late several nights in a row to create a maze game. I struggled with the design – What will the hero of this adventure look like?  How will the maze walls be randomly different each time? What happens when the hero gets to the end? What happens if the hero runs into the wall?

Then, I struggled with the stark and unwavering logic of the computer. It was unforgiving. If the code did not tell it exactly what to do, it would fail and give me an error code. I would change something and then adjust something else. I would stop an unending loop just to watch another problem pop up. Finally, it all came together, and a simple maze game was born. 

What became of my maze game? I wish I could resurrect it, but the game itself is long lost. However, it sparked a lifelong love of technology and software. It also taught me to be extremely logical, which helps me in my business life, analyzing spreadsheet formulas, evaluating strategies, and interacting with software developers.

So, what can we do to spark an interest in coding and start developing some of these skills in our students?  Here are a few ideas:

  • CS Unplugged offers free learning activities that teach computer science without involving an actual computer. Instead, games and puzzles using basic items like cards, string, crayons and some good old running around teach students the concepts at the core of computer science, like binary numbers, algorithms, and data compression.
  • Teaching London Computing offers workshops on teaching computing skills and provides classroom resources and activities to teach computing concepts. Similar to CS Unplugged, many of their resources are fully “offline,”
  • CoderDojo is a global network of free computer programming clubs for youth. Adults with a wide range of coding and computing skills volunteer their time to work with children ages 7–17, teaching them to code and develop websites, apps, programs, and games in an informal, community-oriented environment. There are over 550 CoderDojo groups in more than 55 countries. Find the one nearest to you here.
  • The Hour of Code is a one-hour introduction to computer science intended give every student (and anyone else interested) exposure to coding, while taking the mystery and intimidation out of it. The initiative was developed as part of Computer Science Education Week held in December, but the sessions can be held anytime, anywhere, by anyone. To date, over 108 million students have taken part.

Knowledge of coding and other computing skills is only going to grow more important as our world becomes increasingly tech focused. I am grateful for my own early exposure to the field, and I am excited to see what resources continue to be developed to pass these skill sets on to current and future students.

Edmentum is committed to keeping pace with the growth of the computing field as well. We were very excited to announce the release of the new EducationCity computing module last week, which will help educators introduce technology skills to elementary students through engaging and interactive content. We have also recently expanded our Career Technical Education library and are now offering numerous courses in programming, Web technology, game development, and interactive design for students at the secondary and post-secondary levels.