“Hour of Code” Introduces Students to Comp-Sci

Programming furiously, Andover students created interactive, animated holiday cards and Chatbots as a part of Andover’s first celebration of National Computer Science Education week. The Mathematics, Statistics and Computer Science department hosted “Hour of Code” sessions on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday night in the Phillips Academy Computer Center (PACC). Each night featured a lesson in a particular programming language. In the first session, taught by Maria Litvin, Instructor in Math and Computer Science, students made holiday cards using Scratch 2.0, a web-based coding language considered easier than Java or Python. Litvin said many students recorded their own songs or wrote their own messages. One student, however, worked with Alexander Kuntz, Teaching Fellow for Computer Science, to code the beginnings of a game similar to Pac-Man. Litvin compared the “Hour of Code” to the weekly Language tables in the Mural Room. Just as any student can attend a language table and fall in love with a language, students could attend the “Hour of Code” and discover a newfound interest in the subject, said Litvin. On Tuesday, Jacques Hugon, Instructor in Computer Science, guided students as they learned basic principles of JavaScript through an online tutorial, said Abhinav Venigalla ’15, Co-President of Computer Science club. Hugon said that Tuesday’s Hour of Code was less product-oriented, focusing instead teaching both the language and concepts of Computer Science. Tuesday’s lesson focused on syntactic elements, such as variables and data types of Javascript, more “graphical” lessons that provided an introduction to creating computer algorithms in Javascript, said Hugon. On Wednesday night, Kuntz taught students to use Python to program a Chatbot, which is designed to mimic a human instant messaging conversation. In light of the recent debate over whether computer science should be incorporated into Andover’s core curriculum, the “Hour of Code” sessions served as a way to both celebrate National Computer Science Education week and further inform students about computer science opportunities at Andover. “I think [one of the purposes of National Computer Science Education week] is to get people’s foot in the door, and to show that computer science is not just people sitting down and coding,” said Kuntz. Litvin hopes to see the implementation of a computer science requirement in the near future, as peer-school Exeter has already done. Currently, the Andover computer science curriculum consists of six courses, ranging from the 300-level to the 600-level. Despite the breadth of course offerings, a lack of teachers leads to over-enrolled classes. 20 students enrolled in “Introduction to Discrete Mathematics and Programming” (COMP-470)—most Andover courses max out at 16 students. “We simply don’t have enough qualified people to fill the jobs needed,” said Litvin. Even if students do not choose to pursue a career path in computer science, Litvin still emphasizes the importance of computer science to a well-balanced education, and sees it as a necessity for life in the 21st century. Litvin also pointed out that it involves the useful skills of creativity and attention to detail. Kuntz hoped that the “Hour of Code” sessions would introduce more students to the idea of computer science. “Computer Science is not just simply learning how to operate Microsoft Word, but rather, a way of thinking,” he said. Nick Rauen ’16, a student currently taking the AP Computer Science course, agrees that a knowledge of computer science can make one a more balanced person. “It creates a further understanding of what’s around us. Why do we study history? Why do we study English? Why do we study foreign languages?” said Rauen. James Palmer ’14 said, “Computer science classes have to overcome the obstacle that not many students come in with any grasp whatsoever with the method of thinking required for computer science.” Palmer believes that computer science should be mandatory and that it should be taken either Junior or Lower year. “So many people don’t pursue it because there is this idea of impossibility of creating what these coders are creating so they don’t even try it. If we get people experienced early, they will be better able to explore it if they enjoy it.” Amy Chou ’16 said that she does not believe that a Computer Science course should be required. She believes that students will enjoy it more if they were not forced to take it. Chou said that a better way to introduce students to computer science would be to make Computer Science Club a lot more accessible. “Many students don’t even know that computer science club exists because it wasn’t in the club rally, but I think it has potential to become a big club like Math Club if more people knew about it,” added Chou. Nationally, over two million students participated in the “Hour of Code” on Monday alone. Although this is the fifth annual National Computer Science Education week, this year marks the first year that Andover has been able to celebrate it, as previously the week has fallen during Winter Vacation.