Young coders show digital skills

Computational thinking important, experts say

The year is 2154 and you’ve been given a simple objective: destroy the evil federation.

Ethan Hippel, when he’s not too busy being an 11-year-old kid from West Vancouver, attempts to accomplish this.

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By leading a galactic revolution made up of rebels who want to defeat the federation, he hopes to restore order to the universe.

Hippel assumes the alias “Chase Fish” for his revolutionary duties, which include overcoming various enemies and lots of interstellar travel.

At one point, "Chase" gets stuck while adventuring in what looks like a jungle world, obstructed by a barrage of enemies and left unable to grasp onto a ledge that would appear to lead to safety.

It was a video gaming moment filled with irony: Hippel built this world, Chase’s world, and everything in it, but in this case the creator was stumped by his own creation.

Hippel made the game by coding it, which is essentially manipulating a language – a code – in order to tell a computer or a program what to do.

When he coded and designed his game, called Galactic Revolution, he let his imagination soar.

People gathered at a computer to watch Hippel, a Grade 6 student at West Bay Elementary, move the character Chase through a series of challenging scenarios and make-believe worlds.

 “You can make whatever you want and there’s pretty much no limit to it,” Hippel said enthusiastically about his love of making video games.

There also appeared to be no limit to how good these kids were at coding.

• • •

At a recent event hosted at the West Vancouver Memorial Library, upwards of 85 students from West Vancouver schools, alongside Hippel, were given the opportunity to show off their coding chops by demonstrating educational video games they’d made in class.

The effort was part of a collaboration between elementary schools in West Vancouver and the Learning Partnership, a non-profit organization that’s dedicated to supporting innovation in public education in Canada.  

Many West Vancouver students in grades 4 to 6 have been participating in the Learning Partnership’s Coding Quest program, which helps students learn fundamental coding skills and teaches them to build educational video games, all while following the provincial curriculum.

“We provide them with some very specific step-by-step lesson plans, if they choose to use that. We give them activities and we give them associated teacher cheat-sheets,” said Mike Silverton, Coding Quest’s program manager.

When asked why students used their newfound coding skills to build, of all things, video games, he said that building something fun was motivational for them.

“Students today certainly have a digital perspective and their life to a certain extent has been gamified. They’re comfortable with that,” he said.

But he added that Coding Quest has the broader goal of using coding and video gaming to help students understand and demonstrate competency in a specific field of inquiry, such as science, social studies, math or language arts.

“Then they code a video game that teaches, tests, demonstrates and explains that particular concept that they studied,” he said.

According to experts, the use of coding and, by proxy, video games as a teaching tool just makes sense in a digitized world.

Coding, too, has become part of a larger educational movement to impart necessary life skills in computational thinking.

• • •

In January 2016, B.C.’s Ministry of Education announced that starting in the 2016/2017 school year students in the province’s public elementary schools would receive basic training in coding, with the goal of exposing all students from kindergarten to Grade 12 to it over the next decade.

“You teach your child to swim not because they’re going to be the next Olympic swimmer, but because it’s a life skill. By providing our students with an exposure to computational thinking and coding, we’re giving them another life skill,” said Cari Wilson, who is the West Vancouver District’s innovation support leader for elementary schools.

The new Applied Design, Skills, and Technologies curriculum, which updates long-standing provincial education on topics such as woodworking, metalwork and home economics, also brings in newer areas of focus such as robotics and computational thinking.

West Vancouver schools’ participation in the Coding Quest program was a means of fulfilling certain requirements of the ADST curriculum.

And while coding for some can conjure an image of an individual slouched over a computer screen carefully punching out indistinguishable lines of zeroes and ones, computational thinking encourages students to embrace technology not as a daunting challenge but as a means of understanding their everyday lives.

“We’ve always taught kids to analyze stories and articles so that they can understand them better,” explained Ridgeview Elementary vice-principal Nathan Blackburn at the Coding Quest Arcade.

“That’s still very important, but now their lives are surrounded by technology, so teaching them how to code helps them to understand the technology, the apps, the devices, that much better. It’s like a new digital literacy.”

And teaching youth about digital literacy is now more important than ever.

A report last year from the Information and Communications Technology Council suggested that by 2020 there could be 200,000 communications and information technology jobs in Canada, all involving some measure of computational thinking or coding, but as of now there aren't enough bodies ready for the task.

Wilson suggested that kids’ passion for coding, or at least being exposed to it early on, is their advantage.

“I think also because they are so immersed in a world that’s very digital to them this seems like, ‘Well, of course I should learn how to talk to a computer. Why wouldn’t I learn how to talk to a computer?’”

Wandering around the Coding Quest Arcade, youth ecstatically explained how to play their video games.

Games with titles such as A Garfield Story, Escape School and Ship Smasher had clear, simple objectives, but also displayed a sound knowledge of concepts such as physics, story boarding, spatial awareness, and exceptional design.

While teachers and school districts are testing the waters when it comes to incorporating digital literacy, coding and computational thinking into the new curriculum, UBC Okanagan professor and faculty of education director Susan Crichton advocates for continued support.

“We ask so much of teachers, so we need to give them the supports and the materials and the opportunity for teachers to do this first,” said Crichton, who was part of a government-selected committee that helped inform the new ADST curriculum.

“I think that’s the starting point and it’s a time where we really need to give teachers some grace that they need time to learn this so they can turn around and share it,” she said.

• • •

Back at the Coding Quest Arcade, Hippel demonstrated Galactic Revolution and attempted to eradicate the evil federation as students, teachers and other adults buzzed around him, observing the homespun video game he had made himself.

One nearby student whispered to her peer: “This guy’s talented.”

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