Code Comfort

Computer science department brings programming literacy to local kids

Tuesday, December 16, 2014
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Students learning computer code

Do you want to build a snowflake?

If so, you’ll have to learn some code – but as nearly 40 elementary school children learned Friday afternoon (Dec. 12) at UNH, that’s not so hard.

With ubiquitous “Frozen” princesses Anna and Elsa (and several undergraduate and graduate students from computer science) guiding them, the young programmers created snowflakes on ice and helped an Angry Bird conquer Piggy at the #GoCode event hosted by the computer science department.

“Everybody can have a basic understanding of coding. It’s not that hard,” says Karen Jin, a lecturer in the computer science department and lead organizer of #GoCode. Part of a national computer science education effort that even President Obama promoted, the event aimed to impart programming literacy, not recruit next decade’s computer science majors. The UNH event, in its second year, has doubled in size; organizers had to turn away would-be coders.

Kids of all abilities advanced nimbly through the online tutorials provided by code.org, featuring drag-and-drop coding instructions and popular characters from Frozen, Angry Birds, and Ice Age. Two computer classrooms in Kingsbury bristled with energy, as young programmers worked in pairs and small groups, calling out ideas and lunging across their buddies to mouse their way to a solution.

computer classroom

“I think it’s awesome,” says Leo Klump, a fourth-grader at nearby Moharimet Elementary School who had never coded before. “It’s cool to be able to make your own games.”

Watching his daughter Maia and her friend, Olivia Gass, program Anna to skate an intricate snowflake pattern on “ice,” Darren Scopel of Barrington admits that his charges were not anticipating the activity with enthusiasm. “They said, ‘oh, it’s going to be like school.’ But the ‘Frozen’ characters resonate with them, and now they’re really engaged.”

Indeed, Jin credits the inclusion of “Frozen” with bringing 13 girls to the event. “Why do we always have to play video games? They should be able to do some ‘girly’ stuff, too,” she says.

After the snowflakes were skated and Piggies were beaten, UNH student volunteers showed more practical – and impressive -- applications of coding with demonstrations of LEGO robotics and the UNH LunaCats team’s lunar mining robot.

“The more you program, the more you understand how to make the computer do cooler things,” says computer science major Matt Mayer ’16. Mayer, who mentors youth in a FIRST LEGO League robotics club at UNH, described losing his apartment key then programming a robot to unlock his door on a command from his phone.

“Everything in the future is going to be running code,” he tells the eager participants. “Computers can’t write code themselves. That’s why we need smart people like you.”

Kids holding poster that says GoCode