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Amy Greenwald And 35 Brown CS Students Bring An Hour Of Code To 350 K-12 Kids

Compared to multi-decade efforts like the Artemis Project, Hour of Code (now in its fourth year at Brown CS) is a fairly new outreach effort, but the scope of this year's participation set records and helped achieve two distinct goals. 

For as many as five hours per day, for an entire week (December 5-9, 2016), Professor Amy Greenwald and more than 35 undergraduate and graduate students volunteered at three different Providence public schools: 360 High School, D'Abate Elementary School, and Spaziano Elementary School. Their first objective was to teach approximately 350 kids some basic coding skills. The second, perhaps more important, was to demonstrate the benefits that knowledge of computer science can bring to whatever careers they might someday choose.

Knowing that virtually none of the teachers were trained in CS education and many of the kids had no typing skills, or were learning English as a second language, the volunteers planned their time carefully. "I spent the first five minutes just talking with the students," says undergraduate Eric Rosen. "We had a great discussion about who was smarter, a student or a computer. Up until that point, they weren't making the connection of where computer programs actually come from."

Similar discussions were occurring at 360 High School, where Amy volunteered. "Their teacher was a real motivator," she says, "and we helped her get the kids to realize that Google and all the apps they love are the result of either computer science or computer engineering. It's the first step toward a career in CS."

The first goal of the volunteers was to provide a first taste of computer science, so the students learned to maneuver a sprite around a grid of squares by providing it with a series of commands: take two steps, turn right, take three steps, and so on. Other students chose Star Wars-themed options from the Hour of Code curriculum, or worked with a drawing program, creating a flower petal, then rotating it, then drawing another, learning the key concept of iteration. Some of the older students had slightly more coding experience, but topics such as loops still provided new insight, like the realization that shorter code is easier to read. "Oh, wow!" Eric remembers them saying. "That's so much simpler!"

At the end, there were many signs of success. "How can I do more of this when I get home?" asked numerous students, and teachers requested the email addresses of the Brown CS volunteers so their kids could ask follow-up questions. 

The second goal, quite simply, was inspiration. Throughout the week, the students were provided with multiple examples of peers who are making impressive use of CS even years before college. They were astounded to learn that popular Minecraft mods have been written by high school students, or to hear the story of Louisa Bay, a Project Artemis alum with no prior programming experience who went on to start a Coding Club in her high school. 

"The kids were sort of starry-eyed with all the possibilities," Eric remembers, and Amy shares a story almost too good to be true: a fourth-grade girl who had been extremely shy during the Hour of Code, but was so intrigued by the discussion that she found her voice and raised her hand from the back of the classroom to make sure that it wasn't too late (at age nine or ten) for her to learn CS. "At this critical age, we have a real chance to impact these kids," says Amy. "Being there as exemplars, working computer scientists in the flesh, not television or movie depictions, is one of the best things we can do for these kids."