Cracking the code
Granite State kids are learning the language of the future
Narmana Vale started coding in elementary school when her brother introduced her to a block-based coding program called “Scratch.”
In contrast to traditional, text-based programming, block-based coding allows you to drag “blocks” of instructions to create stories, games and animation without typing text commands.
In sixth grade, Vale, of Exeter, continued to explore coding through joining the Girls Who Code club at the Wiggin Library in Stratham. Her mom, Sara, started the club, which is a chapter of the national organization focused on introducing middle school girls to the fundamentals of computer coding.
“I was interested in how coding was used in the real world. I realized I could create a lot of positive impacts with coding and solve real-world problems with code,” Vale said.
Today, Vale, 15, is a sophomore at Phillips Exeter Academy, where she’s working on a prototype of an application that aims to connect homeless women with feminine hygiene products. The two-way app allows people to donate products and it points women in need to locations where they can receive them. She’s further developed her coding skills in PEA classes, where she is working on a time management application with her classmates.
“Kids should learn code for a couple of reasons. First of all, it’s a fun way of creating programs like games and animations. And when you finish coding something cool, you are proud you made it and that it works,” she said.
Furthermore, girls and women are underrepresented in the field and have a lot to offer organizations, Vale said.
“Apps and software can be used to aid people and change lives. Companies are creating impactful technology with code and need many different perspectives to create this impact. Different perspectives can’t come from one group, they need to come from diverse groups of people,” she said.
Computer coding may sound complicated — a task only successfully achieved by mathematically advanced high school students or experienced software developers. But today, kids as young as 6 are learning coding fundamentals at school, online, at after-school clubs, and through for-profit companies that specialize in coding education.
Coding refers to the process in which you tell a computer how to perform a task. Computer code is responsible for running the programs, games, and apps we use today.
In its simplest form, students can learn “unplugged coding” by establishing a series of directions to get a turtle to a “pond” on a cardboard grid, said Kari Niland, a first-grade teacher at Seacoast Charter School in Dover. Text-based coding requires you to type various characters from a syntax, or list of codes readable by a particular language.
“The purpose of it is to get kids to understand directions and sequencing, and how to do things in a particular order,” Niland said.
Coding in NH’s public schools
Depending where students attend school, they might not be exposed to coding during the school day. Other places students learn to code includes online sites such as code.org, after-school clubs, or the library.
During the 2018-19 school year, 49% of New Hampshire high schools taught at least one computing-related course. About a dozen schools offered the Advanced Placement Computer Science Principles test, which covers coding and programming, along with computer networking
and data analytics.
New Hampshire recently added computer science as a curriculum requirement. Much of the push for this came as a result of a bill that passed in 2018, which requires New Hampshire schools to integrate computer science into the curriculum in grades 1 through 8 and offer at least one course in high school. However, in the earlier grades, the law leaves it up to the teachers to incorporate competencies such as coding and computational thinking practice into the curriculum.
Mihaela Sabin, professor of computer science at the University of New Hampshire, was a member of a task force that looked at what computer science requirements were already in place throughout the state prior to the law and what types of computer classes districts schools offered throughout the state. (Sabin is a founding member of the Computer Science Teacher Association NH Chapter and a member of the CS4NH Coalition. She also co-chairs the Workforce Development Committee of the New Hampshire Technical Alliance.)
The task force’s findings showed that it was difficult, even at the high school level, to discern whether a course was computing-related. The results of the study showed that computing courses focused more on digital literacy or office productivity programs like Microsoft Word or Excel rather than coding, Sabin said.
The main challenge New Hampshire schools face now is preparing teachers to keep pace with the latest computer science technologies. For the first time last year, the state Department of Education offered a computer science teaching certification. As a result, 10 teachers received an additional computer science certification in addition to their initial certifications in elementary education or secondary mathematics, for example. Sabin said these teachers can mentor others who are interested in seeking certification.
“You either come from the computer science industry and have the content but don’t have the pedagogy, or you are a teacher and have an excellent pedagogical approach, but you don’t have the content expertise,” she said.
Problem-solving skills for the 21st century
Learning the building blocks of coding can pay off for kids who decide to pursue it as a career. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, software developers earned a median annual salary of $103,620 in 2018, and demand is expected to grow a whopping 21% through 2028. However, educators say that you don’t have to want to become a software developer to reap the benefits of learning how to code.
Julie Demers, executive director of the New Hampshire Tech Alliance, a statewide technology association that represents more than 60,000 workers and supports companies from start-ups to global enterprises, said leaders throughout New England are looking for employees with problem-solving ability.
Through its Tech Women/ Tech Girls and CS4NH initiatives, and outreach to students in New Hampshire schools, the NH Tech Alliance exposes students to STEM careers and advocates technology in school curricula. Eliminating the fear around coding is important, particularly for students who may not have role models working in the field, said Demers.
“In terms of increasing talent pipelines, we want to engage students and get them interested at a young age,” she said. “It doesn’t have to translate into a career in technology either — it makes you more well-rounded as a whole.”
This year, 1,000 students in 22 schools interacted with 52 NH Tech Alliance volunteers with backgrounds in computer science during TechWomen Ambassadors week, Demers said.
In New Hampshire, technology contributes to 13%-14% of the state’s GDP and the sector is expected to grow 10% in the next five years. Demers said the state averages 2,800 vacancies in technology positions that go unfilled each year because there isn’t enough talent to fill them.
“When you talk to employers, they are less specific about coding languages and more interested in your problem-solving ability and work ethic,” Demers said.
“Coding is the essence of problem-solving with computations. Computation-based solutions are then further automated by ubiquitous computing power that’s embedded in home appliances, cars and traffic control towers, medical devices, or social media,” said Sabin. The earlier you are exposed to it, the more you understand what it means, she said.
Because most of us are used to tapping on an application to get information, we lack the understanding of what’s behind those apps and what makes them work, said Sabin.
“In fact, many of those apps are online services, running on globally connected computer networks over which the United States doesn’t have full control,” she said. “That’s why we need to understand what makes all of those things work the way they do.”
Bringing coding to school through robotics
At World Academy, an independent school in Nashua for infants through eighth grade, Dan Hughes teaches an Intro to Robotics class to students in each grade.
A LEGO master builder and robotics coach, Hughes got his start coaching his son’s robotics team and decided to quit his day job as a sales manager in 2009 “to build robots all day.”
He started contacting schools throughout the state, offering his services, and coaching robotics teams to compete in events like the Robotics World Championship. Not only does he teach at World Academy, but he also helps mentor robotics teams at after-school programs throughout the state.
Because World Academy is an independent school, it has the flexibility to offer a robotics curriculum and host after-school robotics teams. A key to mastering robotics is understanding block-based coding, Hughes said.
Right now, coding doesn’t fall into any particular area of the curriculum in most schools, he said, calling it “the wild west.” Meanwhile, World Academy is expanding its goals, looking at what coding languages are most relevant to teach to kids. While right now Python is the one to know, Hughes said, two years from now, it could be something else.
“It’s good for kids to experience all kinds of languages,” Hughes said. “While the languages are different, the processes and concepts are always the same.”
Engaging young women
To introduce coding to girls, Portsmouth Library sponsored a local chapter of the Girls Who Code program since last fall. Girls Who Code seeks to close the gender gap in computing by offering free curriculum, guidelines for after-school clubs, and coding camps to girls.
Now in its second full year, Mollie Mulligan, librarian coordinator for the Portsmouth Library, said the program has seen many girls continue to learn from facilitators who use tools from Girls Who Code and computers at the library for animations, games and apps.
“Coding is a huge necessity and we know that for girls, especially, there is a drop-off in middle school when it comes to computer, math and STEM topics,” Mulligan said. “We really wanted to indicate that this was a priority for us as well. No one on our staff had coding experience, so we met in the middle.”
Within minutes of posting a need for Girls Who Code facilitators on Facebook, Mulligan said three people responded. One of those facilitators was Michael Roche, who moved to the United States from Ireland in 2011.
A data architect at Liberty Mutual, Roche does not yet have a daughter in school (his daughter Evelyn is almost 4) but said he wanted to share his 20 years of experience with students, and to gain an understanding of what Evelyn may face as a woman learning technology.
“Computers and gender don’t have to be barriers; you are only limited by your imagination and self-belief,” he said.
In a typical session, facilitators address an aspect of technology that is new and interesting, such as self-driving cars, Roche said. Girls are encouraged to look at the pros and cons, as well as any ethical considerations. Girls then learn coding concepts and use them to build their own applications and games. There is a strong emphasis on sisterhood and fun — with snacks and music, he said.
“Coding is about creativity and expressing yourself. The ideas may be complex, but if you decompose it into small units of work, it turns a difficult problem into a simple problem.”
Sam Lucius, the head children’s librarian at the Wiggin Library in Stratham, another location in which Girls Who Code has been routinely offered, said that libraries are a good place for kids to explore coding, which could be considered another type of literacy.
“It’s a foundational skill that you build upon and use in a bunch of different ways,” she said.
Capitalizing on a niche
If a school or local library isn’t delivering the coding experience your child is looking for, businesses who specialize in coding education can likely bump your child’s interest in programming up a notch.
Chuck McNamara of Dunstable, Mass. opened a Code Ninjas franchise in Tyngsborough, Mass. a year and a half ago. Code Ninjas was founded by a software developer in Houston, Texas and has franchises in 38 states and Canada. (There are not yet any franchises in New Hampshire, Maine, or Vermont.)
Code Ninjas is not a classroom or a club, but instead offers students between the ages of 7 and 14 an opportunity to tackle progressively difficult coding projects on a drop-in basis.
“At Code Ninjas, we teach programming instead of just coding,” McNamara said. “We don’t focus on just one language. Students learn how a computer works, what you can make a computer do. Then, switching languages is easy.”
“Math and programming are so interconnected in how thinking and logic are applied,” he said. “Kids’ math scores get better and better after attending Code Ninjas. And if they aren’t so good at math, programming will help improve it.”
Krysten Godfrey Maddocks is a former journalist and marketing director who now regularly writes for higher education and technology organizations in New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Mom to 4-year-old Everett, she has lived in the Seacoast for the past 20 years.