I am excited to announce that this Fall semester of 2018, the Eastern Iowa IT Sector Board has been permitted to run our Scratch programming competition at North Central Junior High (in the Iowa City Community School District). This is the second semester in a row that NCJH has opened their doors to our organization and we are hoping this year will be bigger and better than the last.
Our competition was created after several brainstorming sessions after a previous year's Computer Science Education Week event that we had organized at Buford Garner Elementary school in North Liberty. We had used CSEdWeek as an opportunity to introduce Computer Science to elementary students, in the hopes of encouraging more of them to explore the field as they continue their educational pursuits into the future. After the well received event, we wanted to find a way to scale this event to more schools and add a bit more structure to promote a tighter connection to computer science and specifically to programming. To accomplish this, we introduced competition with rewards for participation, and tried to ensure an equal barrier to entry for all students interested in the event. In fact, we attempt to make the event appeal to any student. The judging criteria is intentionally selected so that any students with previous experience in programming or similar technical skills will not have an advantage over those students that have not ever tried to write software previously. And we chose to require that all projects are created using the same programming language, Scratch.
Scratch is an easy to learn, visual programming language aimed at students between the ages of 8-16. Because it is so easy to use it is a great way for teachers and parents to introduce programming to kids. Easily accessible tools like this can be used to introduce logic and concepts. I believe it is important that we utilize these types of tools and focus on concepts and problem solving strategies because technology changes at such a rapid rate that traditional education institutions will not be able to operate in this rapidly changing environment in the same ways that they have historically found success. One critical paradigm shift that must happen is that teachers cannot expect to be the sole source of truth on technical subjects. I believe teachers should give themselves permission to operate as the lead learner. It is okay (I would even say important) for the teacher to learn as they go and empower students to look for answers on their own.
We organize our Scratch Competitions into 3 distinct touch points: introduction day, lab day, and a celebration day. On the introduction day we go to the school and teach the students how to setup an account and walk them through creating a basic program. For the lab day, we go in and work with interested students to help troubleshoot their programs. In the past we held the lab day after school but this semester we were able to hold lab day in the school library during regular class times, so that students could visit during their study hall periods. After the students have shared their projects, the projects are judged based on our criteria so that we can recognize the top projects. We then return to the school to celebrate the accomplishments of all of the students that participated.
In order to involve local businesses and other interested community members in our competitions, we arrange for volunteers from the community to serve as judges. The three criteria for judging include teamwork, school spirit, and creativity. I believe these categories do an excellent job of representing our goals of an accessible contest that any student has an opportunity to win. In fact the winners from the previous semester had never programmed or used Scratch prior to our competition. It was a pair of girls who put together a story line, generated art, and complex, fun game play; and when they were announced as the winners they were absolutely shocked that their project was voted the best of the competition.
Each time that I go and talk to students about programming or computer science reminds me of why it is important that we encourage children to explore CS at a young age. I have seen some middle school students create amazing programs that you might assume had been developed by someone twice their age. However, at this age, there is already a big difference between students who believe that they can program and those who don't have the same confidence level. At the start of presentations, I often like to ask the students to raise their hands if they feel like they can write a computer program. Very few raise their hands, but those that do will practically jump out of their seat to tell me about the cool idea they brought to life in a computer program. I don't know if it is self-doubt, or a lack of confidence, or a lack of understanding the skills required, but I feel it is my duty to encourage all of those students to at least give it a try! I hope that our Scratch competitions are giving the students this framework for success.
Last semester we had 22 students participate in the celebration day. In total 8 projects were turned in for judging. Seeing the creativity and determination of the students was amazing, and encouraged us to run the competition again this semester. But we want to see this idea expand. We are also talking with the Clear Creek Amana Middle School and have organized a few presentations to get the students introduced to the idea (their block scheduling has required us to rethink the competition schedule), and are talking with the Cedar Rapids school district about a possible Spring competition.
Whether through this competition, or another event, I strongly believe it is important that we continue to find ways to introduce young students to computer science. An early introduction to computer science concepts makes them feel less like magic and more like something that is a realistically attainable skill. I encourage parents, teachers, and students to jump in and learn as much as they can about technology in general, because like it our not -- you are currently immersed in it. In modern society, not knowing the basic concepts of computer science is like walking around a library without knowing how to read. You can still appreciate the picture books, but wouldn't your experience be much more meaningful if you could read everything?