5 ways to engage students in real coding this summer (hint: it’s not by playing Minecraft)

By Nick Winter
June 24th, 2016


A coding expert shares how to get students truly invested in computer science that goes beyond drag and drop

Teaching students how to code software is one of the most valuable skills you can give them, and will virtually guarantee them employment once they’re in the workforce. According to the US Department of Labor, the median pay for a software developer in 2015 was $100,690, and the growth in available positions is expected to be 17 percent during the period 2014-2024 (more than twice the average growth rate across all occupations).

Many schools are offering coding courses over the summer. I’ve spent the last two years building a platform that makes learning to code software as easy as playing a game so I’ve learned a thing or two about how to engage students in coding. Here’s some advice for choosing the right learning platform for your community:

Make sure it’s age-appropriate and will engage children and teens.

Many of these courses were designed for adults, and even if a child is off-the-charts intelligent, he/she might be bored if the course is all coding and no fun. Courses for kids should incorporate some element of gamification to keep them engaged. Look for courses that were designed specifically for children and teens.

Students should be writing actual code, not just dragging and dropping.

Programs like Scratch are a good method for very young children (K-2), but within a few hours becomes boring for older children, who won’t learn very much. To keep kids engaged, they need to start writing real code very quickly.

Get them started on a ‘beginner’ programming language.

Javascript and Python are two great beginner languages. Java and Swift are much more complex and may intimidate a beginner, ruining the experience for them.

Don’t get stuck in the Minecraft trap.

Many people think playing Minecraft helps children learn to code. It doesn’t. It’s engaging, and it teaches children binary logic, but they aren’t learning to code. Don’t get tricked into letting children or teens play Minecraft all day and think they are learning programming.

Make sure there is some collaboration involved.

Single-player is fun for a child for a while, but they quickly want to show off what they’ve done, and that’s easier with multi-player coding – especially when the course involves gamification.

There are also some good options for children who may not be ready for a course yet, but who want to do some light learning as a first step. Check out board games such as Robot Turtles, and programmable robot building kits (such as Dash & Dot or a Sphero), which are great activities to work into a summer camp program. But teachers shouldn’t just hand their students a game and step back — these activities are more valuable when teachers and students do them together.

This advice and these tools can easily be carried back into the classroom in September. Happy summer, and happy coding!

About the Author:

Nick Winter is founder and CEO of CodeCombat.