Coding in the Classroom — eMINTS enhances educator’s abilities to connect
By Carla Chaffin and Christie Terry
This is not your typical classroom.
Clustered around computers, students are working in small groups filling the room with the sound of video games and conversation. The truth is, these students are part of a project that came out of collaboration between the University of Missouri College of Education eMINTS National Center and the University of Colorado – Boulder (UCB) Scalable Game Design Project. The goal of the project called oDREAMS is to teach students computational thinking skills as they learn to design, program, and debug their own video games using the AgentSheets software developed at the UCB.
Programmers use computational thinking to describe and solve problems as well as anticipate and plan for potential problems. In an age where computers play a role in almost every career, business, community and education leaders agree that helping students understand computers and programming is vital for our economy.
Computational thinking skills reach beyond just programming; the problem solving approach, student perseverance, and emphasis on divergent or creative thinking have applications across the school curriculum and in the workplace.
Melissa Kirchoff, a third grade teacher in the Francis-Howell School District, joined the project to help her kids develop 21st century skills.
“They [the students] are going to need to be able to collaborate with others and problem solve to be successful at whatever careers they pursue,” Kirchoff says. “When kids are faced with a problem, they need to learn that they might not be successful at first, but that they need to keep trying different solutions until they are successful. Often kids just want to give up when things are hard or not working for them. But learning computational thinking skills by creating video games will keep the students motivated to problem solve. For me, learning the programming skills is just a bonus. I want them to be problem solvers and thinkers.”
Funded by a National Science Foundation grant, eMINTS staff and UCB faculty developed online and blended professional development options to help teachers learn to use and teach the AgentSheets software. Offering professional development to teachers online allows the project to reach as many teachers and ultimately as many students as possible. Teachers in the course design and program their own games just as students will in the classroom, learn how to encourage creative problem solving and how to structure learning to gradually increase the complexity of student work.
By the end of the course teachers, who have never programmed before, are prepared to help their students create video games.
One goal of oDREAMS is to engage girls and minorities in STEM fields, especially careers related to computer science. Employers are struggling to find qualified computer science and technology workers and American colleges and universities are not producing enough qualified candidates to fill these positions. At the same time, minorities and women continue to be under-represented both in computer science programs and in the workforce. Previous research by UCB found that motivation is very high among girls and minorities in classrooms using AgentSheets software and guided inquiry approach to teaching computational thinking and programming, with 78% of girls and 74% of minority students stating that they would choose to enroll in additional computer-based game design courses.
The AgentSheets software is designed to help students quickly start programming. Students begin by making their own video game characters and then drag and drop if/then statements that dictate how characters will react in the game. Once students have mastered the basics, teachers introduce more and more complex challenges, keeping students in an ideal state of engagement: challenged but not frustrated. Game design requires students to tackle questions like: What should happen in the game? How do I make this happen? What could go wrong? or How can it be challenging yet possible to win? As students are working to make their ideas a reality, they think through complex concepts, develop algorithms, and learn the value of trial and error, persistence, and creative thinking.
The oDREAMS online professional development course for teachers, “Critical Thinking and Problem Solving with Game Design,” prepares teachers to introduce students to their first programming experience. Teachers leave the course with lesson plans and game examples for immediate classroom implementation. They also receive a building license for the AgentSheets software. According to Dr. Lorie Kaplan, Executive Director for the eMINTS National Center, response to the course has been very positive. “We have had an amazing response from teachers who want to take the course and get their kids started programming. Instead of worrying about how to recruit enough teachers for the research project, we’ve had to start a wait list for grant-funded seats in the course.”
If you are a teacher interested in joining the project you can get involved by contacting the eMINTS National Center at the University of Missouri at firstname.lastname@example.org or 573-884-7202
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