Hour of Code emphasizes computer skills

Thousands of students are designing iPhone apps and learning how to program Angry Birds games this week.

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As part of Computer Science Education Week, more than 30 Idaho schools are offering an introduction to computer coding and programming through the nationwide initiative Hour of Code.

It may sound like fun and games, but the head of a local software company thinks Hour of Code could be an important step in better preparing Idaho students for thousands of unfilled computing jobs.

“As we dug into it, we found a massive shortage in the work force,” Klowd.com CEO Ken Holsinger said. “(The solution) is starting with exposure early in life to get kids passionate.”

That’s where Hour of Code comes in.

Cliff Weight, who teaches science and math at Bonneville Technical Careers High School in eastern Idaho, worked with 25 students on Hour of Code activities Monday. He and his students were impressed with the new program, and he has followup activities planned for Wednesday.

“It’s presented as a game, so it really helps them relate to the stuff they’re doing on their phones or computers,” Weight said. “It’s interesting to them to be able to see what’s behind the games and programs they use on a daily basis.”

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Dave Guymon, who teaches middle school at Bonneville Online School in eastern Idaho, will use free tutorials online to help his students create a version of the classic computer game Pong during Hour of Code activities Thursday.

“The objective is for teachers across all grade levels and content areas to take one hour out of the week to introduce students to computer science as a way of demystifying coding,” Guymon said. “They’re not getting it anywhere else, and the ability to understand computer coding language is becoming essential.”

While Guymon’s students reimagine the game of Pong, others will write code to navigate mazes on the popular gaming app Angry Birds. Still others will build iPhone games or create drawings using JavaScript.

The initiative is backed by the founders of the website Code.org, and a host of supporters including President Barack Obama, NBA player Chris Bosh, pop star will.i.am and Facebook executive Mark Zuckerberg.

Holsinger is pushing Idaho lawmakers and officials for a statewide computing program in the spring, or a customized Idaho Hour of Code this time next year.

“We need to expose kids at every level to some basic understanding of how coding works,” Holsinger said. “(Computer coding) is the language the world communicates with. It’s far more prolific than other spoken or written languages.”

Holsinger backs the program so strongly because he is often unable to find qualified Idaho-based computer programmers to hire at his Eagle-based software company. In November, Holsinger told the K-12 Interim Committee that Idaho is only producing about 100 programmers per year. Many of those programmers take jobs out of state, and local software companies are often “trading employees” when they hire because of the dearth of local applicants.

“I think we need to raise our game significantly,” Holsinger told lawmakers at the time.

Compass computer labComputer coding classes are available in Idaho, but they are electives and not a graduation requirement. However, the State Board of Education has sent the Legislature a proposed new rule to allow dual-credit courses in engineering and computer science and Advanced Placement computer science classes to count as graduation requirements.

“We live in a world where it’s not an option any more,” Guymon said. “The longer we wait to teach students how computers work, the more of a detriment it will be once they leave the classroom and enter the real world.”

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