Teach students to learn by doing with Google school coding clubs

Google’s CS First clubs open up new worlds for novice coders

scratchA few months ago, I was searching for resources to support computer science education for middle school students—girls in particular—when I came across Google CS First. Not really knowing what it was, I went ahead and registered my school, and then myself—as a teacher host, advocate, volunteer, and guru all at the same time. I might not have known what I was getting into, but I knew that I would do anything to inspire my students to grow and learn in all areas of STEM, but in particular, computer science.

Today my school is a Google CS First site, meaning we host CS First clubs that take place before or after school as an enrichment experience for students in grades 4-8, where they learn about computer science and coding in a hands-on way—learning by doing. As part of the process, I made my classroom available for local volunteers, or “gurus,” to come in to help and connect with students, opening up my school to the community. Our gurus receive detailed information about where to go, when to show up, and even how to locate my classroom. Most importantly, a background in computer science is not a requirement.

The support from Google CS First is tremendous. Upon request, they sent a loaner set of 30 headphones and peripheral materials for the students that included passports, sticker-badges for each day’s modules, detailed scripts, certificates of completion, and directions for exercises. All materials are also available for free download from the club site, with coding done in Scratch, a programming language that uses building blocks to form commands. All of these supporting materials make it seamless for anyone, be it a volunteer guru, teacher, or parent to come in and help out. A suggested script, as well as breakdown of time for each activity, is also included.

Next page: Exploring the wider world of computer science

Google CS First’s modules are engaging and cover a variety of themes such as “Sound and Music,” “Game Design,” and “Storytelling” with more on their way. They include informative screencast tutorials that make it easy for both students and volunteers to follow along. The agenda that comes with the program includes a timer to help keep the club on track, and breaks down sessions into segments with a countdown visible to the facilitators.

The modules are run in eight-day sessions, with the first day used a basic introduction to the club and the Scratch platform. Students are encouraged to explore and build something “surprising” using the blocks in Scratch on this first day. The screencasts also make reference to how computer scientists help people do things by writing code and in so doing, solve a multitude of problems in a variety of fields, from medicine to robotics. After that first day, students are led through a series of structured tutorials to help them build a portfolio of their very own projects.

At the same time, they are encouraged to spend time outside of the official club times to customize their creations and add their own touches to their projects. In the “Sound and Music” module, for example, the projects include manipulating visuals in the form of sprites—individual images or animations—and sound effects in various combinations to create interactive art, music videos, and dance effects. In building these projects, the students are sequentially introduced to various “blocks” that perform key functions, such as the repeat loop and if-then commands. These help build the foundation in computational thinking so that they gradually gain the confidence and ability to tweak and create their own versions of these initial projects. At the end of each session, students have the opportunity to celebrate their coding projects through a scheduled showcase time. Collaboration through sharing ideas and helping one another is encouraged, and learning takes place almost unconsciously in a supportive environment through engaging tasks.

Simply signing in with a Google account under the “Get Started” section of the CS First website will start the ball rolling, and there are training resources to help teachers and volunteers to get a feel for what a typical CS First session will look like (support staff also respond to concerns almost immediately). For students who may be ready for more computer science after this initial taste, there are additional resources on the site where students can even learn to program using HTML, Javascript, and more.

At my middle school, I have opened my computer lab for a girl’s lunchtime coding club where we go through the day’s activities and share projects with one another. It has been a great time and I have gotten to know all about the girls and their interests. Most importantly, they have had their interest in computer science ignited, and even possibly their career trajectory altered. Informal experiences with computer science such as these are full of impact. Truly there is nothing more powerful than learning by doing—and learning that you can do anything, including computer science.

Janice Mak is a teacher and instructional coach at the Paradise Valley Unified School District in Arizona.

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