New elective expands coding experience for junior high students

Traci Newell/Town Crier
Egan eighth-graders Sarah Yung and Steven Tang watch as their coding comes to life and generates a graphic in their Computer Science elective last week.

Coding is getting more advanced for two classes of junior high students in the Los Altos School District.

In January, Blach Intermediate and Egan Junior High schools began offering an elective computer science course.

The course, which instructor and district computer science integration specialist Sheena Vaidyanathan said is a pilot program, is designed to provide students with more in-depth and challenging coding exercises.

All district students receive Computer Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (CSTEM) instruction once a week, which includes coding and computer science lessons. The new elective course meets daily.

“They are coming in every day,” Vaidyanathan said of her coding students. “The bar is set higher on how much I am expecting them to finish or complete. In CSTEM we are exposing them and getting them excited, and in the elective we are going a lot deeper.”

Diving deeper

That deeper knowledge starts in the type of coding program the students are using – Python, a text-based coding language.

“I feel (this class) is really good at applying Python,” said Egan eighth-grader Alex Ng. “We use it to create graphics and sort algorithms. We are applying code to actual uses.”

Last week the students prepared for presentations on their first collaborative coding assignment. Assembled in groups of three, each student wrote code to create a graphic – trees, a road, buildings, etc. Students then combined all three of their graphics into one element.

To take it one step further, Vaidyanathan taught students a new function, enabling students in the class at Blach to manipulate their graphics.

“The point now is not just to be excited about coding,” she said. “To be honest, coding can be exciting, but it can be very difficult very quickly.”

In the course, Vaidyanathan teaches different coding basics and the class expands on the coding building blocks. Students are assigned a series of tasks and programming assignments to complete, using code from scratch.

Egan eighth-grader Boris Palant said the computer science course challenges him.

“There is a lot of thinking involved,” he said. “You don’t always have all the commands – you have to remember what they are. I like that we have a lot of projects. It challenges you to remember and use the coding you have done before.”

Vaidyanathan said the tasks are clearly outlined and include a time limit as well as grading and assessment. She noted that she is designing the class to prepare students for higher-level computer science courses in high school.

Egan eighth-grader Sarah Yung said the class is different from her other courses – there are “less textbooks and more action.”

“It’s cool to know someone else will be using your code in what they are making,” she said, highlighting the collaboration with fellow Blach students.

Steven Tang, who partnered with Sarah on their latest assignment, said he likes the course’s curriculum.

“I like how we learn all the components of computer science – not just coding,” he said.

Vaidyanathan said the class aims to give students interested in CSTEM learning the opportunity to delve deeper and prepare for future coding classes.

“At the end of the day, we are still just teaching them problem-solving skills and to think logically,” she said. “We are giving them computational thinking skills. I think when they have learned these skills – constantly playing with math and logic – they will be successful in whatever they do.”

The addition of computer science classes is one of the Los Altos Educational Foundation’s goals for the district, and foundation funds supported creation of the course.

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