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Writing in code: Encinitas students learn programming

Fifth-graders Cristian Tlatempa (left) and Lucas Ek learn how to write code in a Capri Elementary classroom. Capri Elementary is an early adopter in a national push to teach elementary students how to write computer code.
( / Jared Whitlock)

In a classroom at Capri Elementary, fifth-grader Mika Ellison punched in commands on a laptop and watched the result: A pink ice cream cone appeared on the screen.

Ellison and other students in the classroom were using JavaScript, which is at the heart of most web browsers.

“It’s not that hard once you get the hang of it,” Ellison said.

All K-6 students at Capri learn computer coding for 30 minutes each week, an initiative that launched this past fall.

Recently, districts across the nation have joined a national push to teach coding, reasoning it’s a skill that will be required for most jobs in the future.

Capri is the first to take up coding in the Encinitas Union School District, and is among the early adopters across the country.

“Thinking about it, so many fields use coding, from biotech to agriculture,” said Barbara Lamb, Capri’s coding instructor. “Even if they don’t go into a field that demands coding, it teaches them logic; it teaches them problem-solving.”

She added: “It’s teaching another language.”

To learn new concepts, students first watch a tutorial video, and if they can’t figure it out by trial and error, Lamb is there to help.

By next year, the goal is for fourth through sixth-graders to develop educational games for K-3 with Scratch, a programming language developed by MIT.

Sixth-grader Zach Brown is a bit ahead of his peers in this regard.

Brown, who has completed programming camps and codes as a hobby, developed his own game in which the goal is to move past objects without getting hit.

“Some of my friends do this — it’s really fun to build something,” he said.

For younger students, the lessons don’t involve raw computer language. They use pre-built code. So they click on directions like “move right” to navigate characters through a maze, for instance.

Yet it’s more complicated than that. If the maze includes redundant steps, savvy students will click on “repeat directions” or other functions to speed up the process.

To prepare students to write code, at the beginning of the year Lamb asked for directions in making a peanut butter sandwich and simply walking to the end of the room.

“They would tell me to unscrew the jar,” Lamb said. “I’d ask them: ‘Which way I should turn?’

“Students learn all the inputs that go into a process and the fastest way to accomplish something by coding,” she added.

Capri Principal Laura Philyaw, who spearheaded the coding initiative, said students are learning how to contribute to technology, rather than just use it.

“We want them to contribute to the world around us,” Philyaw said.


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