Bristol Elementary students learn computer coding

BRISTOL — Bristol Elementary School students will be the first to tell you that a 21st-century education is not just about the reading, writing and arithmetic. These kids are computer programmers, too.
Every student, from kindergarten through sixth grade, for the last week took part in computer coding lessons taught by Bristol Elementary librarian Kyra Ginalski and Gillian McGarvey, a parent who works in the technology sector.
The effort was inspired by the Hour of Code, a global initiative that encourages everyone from students to senior citizens to take a free tutorial on computer coding.
McGarvey, whose two children attend Bristol Elementary, said teaching students to code is vital because many jobs in the modern economy require computer skills, and students are more likely to find high-paying work if they have a background in computer science.
“Coding is something that when you know how to do it, then you can teach yourself more on your own,” McGarvey said. “Once you have those skills you can go out into the world and accomplish almost anything.”
McGarvey has worked in technology and communications for 20 years, and moved to Vermont in 2000. This year she founded the communications firm Wheelhouse Editorial, which she said has clients that include corporations, publishers, authors and universities.
She said she learned how to code in the early 1990s and that the skill has greatly advanced her career.
The week of coding at Bristol Elementary came at no cost, as McGarvey volunteered her time and Code.org provided free lessons and online resources.
SAM FORBES, RIGHT, checks out Bristol Elementary School classmate Jacob Thomsen’s work during a coding class at the school last week.
Independent photo/Trent Campbell
In the Bristol Elementary library on Tuesday morning, fifth- and sixth-graders tinkered with programs they developed using Scratch, an application created by programmers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that is designed to introduce coding to beginners.
Sixth-grader Shea Cravens explained that with code, what students can create is limited only by their imagination.
“You can make anything you want using code,” she said. “You take little blocks of code and put them together with other blocks of code to make the different games.”
Sixth-grader Sam Forbes designed a game he called “Crimson Warriors,” in which a user navigates through several levels to defeat a “boss.” He said it took him three weeks to create, and pointed to the maze of coding lines on the screen of his Google Chromebook. But he added that he was satisfied with the final product.
“I shared it online, and now other people are playing it, too,” Forbes said.
Both Forbes and Cravens said they practice coding outside of the classroom, too.
“I started on projects through the school, then I started non-school projects,” Forbes said. “I just think it’s fun.”
Though they won’t enter the workforce for more than a decade, the pair said they both are interested in pursuing careers in computer science, and agreed coding is a valuable skill.
“It’s useful to know this stuff, because in the future if we ever get jobs that require it, we can use them,” Cravens said.
At a nearby table, fifth-graders Isadora Beck, Noah Engvall and Kaia Companion worked on their projects. They all said the computer coding was their favorite project so far this year. Engvall added that he may consider a career that requires coding skills.
“I want to be an animator when I grow up, and I’m pretty sure you have to do a lot of this,” Engvall said.
Companion and Beck said they weren’t discouraged by the fact that presently men dominate computer science-related fields. Industry projections estimate that only about 20 percent of computer programmers are women.
“I think anyone can be interested in this,” Companion said. “It doesn’t matter what gender you are.”
All said they hoped more computer science classes are offered at Mount Abraham Union High School by the time they matriculate.
“I would definitely take this class if it were offered,” Companion said.
Ginalski said she wants her students, who interact with technology such as computers and smartphones every day, to know how it all works.
“Having some understanding in reading digital information, and being able to troubleshoot it when technology isn’t working, is essential,” she said. “I feel strongly that I want my students to be not just users and consumers in the digital world. I want them to be creators.”
She said that although elementary school students should not be asked to choose a career path at such an early age, education should prepare them with skills that are applicable in many different areas.
“That kids get to know about different jobs, particularly something that can cross fields, is really important,” Ginalski said.
McGarvey said that while Vermont remains deeply tied to its agrarian roots, the state is committed to growing its small, but vibrant, tech sector.
“Certainly Burlington is trying to promote itself as a technology hub with places like Dealer.com,” McGarvey said. She pointed to groups like the Vermont Technology Alliance, a network of technology entrepreneurs, as evidence that the tech sector here has a bright future.
While Vermont’s unemployment rate is among the lowest in the nation, the size of the workforce remains below pre-recession levels, and jobs are scarce. McGarvey said by educating students in computer programming, they may be able to create new sources of employment and not be forced to leave Vermont after graduating high school or college.
“This gives these kids the opportunity to be successful in an economy with a limited amount of careers,” McGarvey said. “It gives them a way to be creative and maybe start a company or create a product using software that will enable them to make a living here.”
Ginalski said that after graduating from Middlebury College, she had to move to Boston and Providence, R.I., to find work in her field. She hopes that with a computer science background, students will have more options.
“I would love for my students to go out and see the world a little bit and then be able to come back and work in a field that they can contribute to this community, but still be connected to the world,” Ginalski said. “This is the type of field where they can do that.”
Zach Despart may be reached at [email protected].

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