In a district where most of our students receive free or reduced lunches, we have next to no access to high-quality STEM programs, computer science classes, or coding courses. When I was Googling different ways to fill some of these gaps and incorporate more STEM into my Girls Excelling in Math and Science (GEMS) after-school club, I discovered an online coding platform and coding competitions that are both accessible and affordable.
This was a big find. I wanted my students to excel and compete effectively with important college and career and STEM skills, regardless of how rich or poor our school district was, but we just didn’t have the resources to make that happen. I was looking for a platform that taught basic computer coding, and one that would allow anyone at any skill level to jump in and participate.
I also wanted a program that included robotics, and that segued into our existing robotics program, which starts in seventh grade. CoderZ checked all of these boxes, so we started using it three years ago. It effectively replaced the Hour of Code general coding/computer programming platform that we were previously using.
Here are some of the top benefits we’ve seen since making the switch:
• Keeps students engaged and immersed. We used the Cyber Robotics 101 curriculum just to immerse students in the experience, because they’d never done anything like this before. We did that the first week that the CoderZ modules opened. Then, we jumped onto the CoderZ League competitive rounds as soon as they started. It quickly became clear that the platform was a step above what we’d been using before.
• Tracks team progress. When I take my classes into the lab to code, we use a leaderboard to track their progress. They started out at the bottom of the pack because we got a late start, and it was exciting to watch them rise up through the ranks as they earned points. The minute they saw the competitive aspect of this, they also got pretty excited about it. They come in first thing in the morning and ask, “Are we still in fourth place?” And then we’d pull up the leaderboard. There were times when things got tough and their performance slowed, but seeing the progress they made pushed the students to dive in and work harder.
• Levels the playing field. Not all students enjoy talking in front of a group, and some are shy about sharing their thoughts. Using the coding platform, they can work independently and gain confidence as they complete a couple of missions. Because each new mission grows in complexity, students also develop a sense of confidence and begin interacting with other students. They’re talking about code, helping each other develop better code, and opening up in ways that you don’t always see in the traditional classroom setting. This is not only great to see, but it also helps to level the playing field in STEM.
• Gives students future-ready skills. Every student should have a basic grasp of coding, and our coding platform is helping to make this goal a reality. CoderZ starts with Blockly code, which I’ve used to teach students who have never coded before and who don’t even have computers at home. It’s opened up doors where they can now say, “This is a career that I might want to consider.” I’ve also talked to them about the various careers that involve computer programs and technology, and the role that coding plays in those vocations.
• Get girls interested in STEM. CoderZ also helps us close the gender gap in STEM. If your students comprehend that this gap in coding must be closed and that the first programmer was female, it starts to open their eyes to the opportunities. Even better, when they hear that nearly 70% of coding jobs are not IT related—and that any element powered by electricity needs coding—their eyes begin to open up to the plethora of opportunities that coding knowledge will afford them.
We made it to the state robotics finals during the first two years of using the coding platform, with those trips including both a tour of the state capitol and an excursion to a computer college. In December, we placed first in Region 11 of the national competition and earned a spot in the World Finals. Originally scheduled for January, that event was postponed because the studio that hosts the competition and streams it live is currently closed due to COVID.
Things are in flux right now due to the pandemic, but we’re looking forward to a time when we can start participating in “live” events again. The students love it and it’s an excellent STEM opportunity for them. They’re learning a basic skill that they need in the future, regardless of which career they choose six years from now.
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