By Christine Smith
The excitement was unmistakable as the teens gathered around their design for an NES controller — not a small 3-D version, but a large rectangle flat piece of paper with tin foil layered on top for buttons — with the plan to hook it up to a circuit board and play a video game.
It was this creation process and the result that teachers at the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster hope will inspire local kids to explore and maybe even find an interest and a future in computer programming and designing. Paul LeFebvre, who runs a humanoid robotics program and mentors the robotics teams at the club, noted the smiles on the kids’ faces.
LeFebvre and Kyle Sargent, who is also an instructor on staff at the club, both said that giving the kids creative projects like this generates enthusiasm for computer science. LeFebvre said that when the projects are fun, the kids are more apt to sit down and want to get more involved with the more tedious work of such things as real coding.
The activity celebrates Technology Week and is part of a much more global movement known as “An Hour of Code.” The idea was sparked by Hadi and Ali Partovi when they launched their Code.org website in 2013 with the purpose of promoting more participation in computer sciences by “making it available in more schools, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented students of color.”
Both founders of the movement believe that computer sciences should be a part of the core curriculum of the education offered by schools. Their goals include inspiring students, reaching more classrooms, creating courses, improving diversity, going global, preparing new computer science teachers, changing school district curriculum and setting up policies to support computer sciences. Currently, Code.org says that introduction courses have made it into more than 70,000 classrooms and reached more than 3 million students in 180 countries worldwide.
Financial support for the movement comes in large part from Google, Microsoft, OMIDYAR Network and Balmer Family Giving, as well as from the Portovis themselves, Bill Gates, and others including Drew Houston, Startup:Education spearheaded by Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan, and others. Funds also come from Amazon, Walt Disney, Juniper Networks and the Association of Computer Machinery among many more.
There are several major partners, including well-known companies Apple, Best Buy, Target and Khan Academy, as well as organizations such as College Board and the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.
According to Code.org, “one hour intro into computer science is designed to demystify code and show that anybody can learn the basics.” This year, the event was held during the week of Dec. 8-14, with schools and community organizations hosting events throughout the week.
Executive Director Donata Martin said the Boys and Girls Club of Fitchburg and Leominster has a strong computer science component to the activities offered, being a STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Math) Focus Club. She said the club offers computer programming activities and organizes teams for First Lego League and First Robotics Competitions.
Although many of the 13- to 15-yearold teens participating in the Code.org inspired program this particular day had been part of the club’s programs already and were planning to participate in upcoming robotics teams, some present were still new to programming.
The activity involved working with a pre-designed circuit board and sets of wires that were connected to objects having the ability to transfer electric currents. The challenge was to make successful connections and control movement through video game play that could be visibly seen on an enlarged computer screen.
Participant Leo Gonzalez, who was the first to successfully manipulate the paper and tin foil controller, said the activity was “fantastic.” Adalina Brogna was no less enthusiastic, saying she “really liked it and I had a lot of fun.”
There was a bit of struggle at first to get the designs that were drawn with pencils on a different sheet of paper to work as a dance pad for “Dance, Dance Revolution,” although there was a small moment of success with that as well.
In a second session involving younger children aged 8-12, kids learned basic method of coding by manipulating preset “packaged” commands in a drag and drop format to manipulate “Angry Birds” or “Frozen” characters, or used a more advanced program that involved drawing rectangles and circles to make animals. Susan Taylor, professor for computer information systems at Mount Wachusett Community College, and some of her students were also on hand to assist the younger children.