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Juneau students learn programming

Posted: December 13, 2013 - 1:05am
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Students work at computers during the Hour of Code program in the Harborview Elementary School library on Thursday.  Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Michael Penn | Juneau Empire
Students work at computers during the Hour of Code program in the Harborview Elementary School library on Thursday.

Ursula Sfraga, the Juneau-based branch manager for Resource Data, Inc., knows firsthand that there is a shortage of computer programmers looking for jobs — that’s why she decided to take computer science education to Juneau’s youngest students.

She first brought the issue to school administrators to get the “Hour of Code” national initiative into the capital city classrooms. She also contacted Gov. Sean Parnell’s office about the effort, who issued a proclamation last Friday dubbing this week, “Computer Science Education Week.”

“We’re at a million shortfall of projected jobs by 2020, so that’s why I’m targeting this age group — to kind of demystify code,” Sfraga said. ”This is such a no-brainer.”

The program centers on children logging onto the iniative’s website, code.org, and then playing games designed to teach different levels of the coding process.

“The kids get really excited because to them it’s a game, but they’re learning so we’re tricking them,” said Jenny Munroe, a project manager for Resource Data, Inc. who has volunteered to help students at Harborview Elementary School navigate the software.

More than 12 million students have programmed some 389 million lines of code through code.org, according to the site.

The younger children do things like figuring out what a bird avatar needs to do in order to travel a pathway to the goal. The students have options like “Move Forward” and “Turn Left” that they must put in the correct sequence before pressing “Run Program,” which then makes the character do what they ordered.

“They’re going through the logical steps you take when you write code,” Munroe said. “The computer will do what you tell it, so by doing this program they’re learning the basics of coding principals.”

The programs get harder as grades increase, to the point high schoolers can create an iPhone app and write in javascript directly.

By the end of today, about 700 1st through 8th graders in three Juneau schools will have participated in the program.

Harborview, the Juneau Community Charter School and the Montessori school were the only ones participating this year due to a limited number of volunteers.

“We’re giving them a taste of what programming is,” said Julie Leary, a library teacher at Harborview. “Not that we want them to choose a career this year, but this is great because they’re learning computers and having a blast.”

Sfraga hopes to expand the program next year to include more schools in Juneau so more children have the opportunity to explore the realm of code.

It’s an initiative Harborview Elementary School’s principal wasn’t about to let pass by. When Sfraga approached him about doing the program with some students, he quickly opened it up to the entire school.

“Even if this hits one or two kids, it will be worth it because so many kids are interested in technology and it’s going to be with us forever, so why not,” Principal Dave Stoltenburg said. “Why not open the door for everybody? You never know where that interest is going to start.”

• Contact reporter Matt Woolbright at 523-2243 or at matthew.woolbright@juneauempire.com. Follow him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/reportermatt.

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