Focus on Computer Science: Learning the Language of Change

by Ethan Smith

Computer science is the grand language hidden behind almost everything we do in our modern society. It is what powers everything from your smartphone to the car you drive, and it makes our fast-paced, technological world possible. However, just because this language is as integral to our lives as our spoken language doesn’t mean it is commonly understood. This class challenges students to learn the language of computers and provides them with the tools to change the world around them and build something out of just a few (hundred) lines of code.

For the first week and a half of class, we taught our students Java-script, using Code.org. The students ran through all 26 lessons (each of which has five to ten modules) in four days and, once they grasped the basics, began free-coding to build their own games. They could make any game they wanted, some opting for side-scrolling platformers, others for shooters, and another for a card game. They used what they learned, both from us and their own exploration, to produce the games that they wanted and that others enjoyed playing.

Students working in a computer lab.
Students working on their Code.org games, each with different goals in mind.

The majority of class time and study hall, especially after we got through teaching them all 26 lessons, consisted of the students listening to music, quietly mulling over code, trying to figure out how to make things work, and asking questions to me or other campers. The questions quickly got deeper and more complex, yet the solutions usually required a simple fix, be it correcting a misspelling or moving an out-of-place bracket; we never failed to fix the issue or come up with a suitable workaround. My favorite part was when a student would call me over to help, I would sit down, they would explain their issue, and then they would immediately figure out the answer without my input.

I have gotten to witness the growth of these students’ knowledge, critical thinking, and especially cooperation over the past two weeks. It amazes me how quickly these students learn and how good their work ethic is. Coding is mentally taxing; usually by the end of the day, especially in study hall, the students’ brains are completely fried (along with mine), but they always come back the next day ready to go again with fresh ideas. Sometimes in study hall a student will ask a question that no one will know the answer to, but by the next day someone always has it solved.

Two students work on a small robot in front of a computer..
W.P. Hurt and Joaquin Pauig build and code their custom sumo-bot.

This Tuesday, we transitioned the format of class; the first half was the same, with the students working on their games — refining them and fixing the bugs — but the second half of class was used for our second unit: robotics. We began by giving each team a kit and showing them the software and building instructions. Then we turned them loose to build. The first challenge was to build a sumo-bot (a robot designed to push other robots out of a circular ring without falling out itself, similar to sumo wrestling). I joined in the fun and built a sumo-bot for them to try to beat, essentially the Final Boss. The students started with standard robots built from instructions, but they quickly evolved them into unique builds, each coming up with different strategies to win. These sumo-bots were just the warm-up to bigger robotics projects, as we then transitioned the students into competing against one another in a mini First Lego League competition.

These students have inspired me immensely with their unbounded work ethic, intellect, and problem solving, and they make me want to push myself as hard as they do.

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