Monday, December 1, 2014

Hour of Code

December 8-14 is Computer Science Education Week.  In conjuction with this week, educators are encouraged to design activities to allow students to create one Hour of Code.  Never tried any coding?  No problem.  There are many resources available for use at

Last year I jumped on the Hour of Code bandwagon as soon as I learned about it.  When I signed up, I really had no idea what I would do with my students or how to do any coding myself.  My superintendent and I actually joked about how when we were in middle school we both had the experience of running the three-line program that made our names repeat forever on a computer screen.  Still, with this limited experience, I wanted to try it, so I figured I would get an iPad app and ask my students to do something chemistry related in one of those.

Then I read one of the many excellent posts by Amy Gruen on her blog, Square Root of Negative One Teach Math (we share a first name and a knack for ridiculously long blog titles!).  She was raving about her experiences teaching students to program graphing calculators.  Eureka!  What a terrific idea!  Like their mobile devices, graphing calculators are carried by almost all my students and their power for learning is under-utilized.  I decided I would teach then how to program their graphing calculators.

I remembered that a previous edition of my textbook Modern Chemistry included a section on how to program your calculator for chemistry.  I tried to simple programs - how to calculate protons, neutrons, and electrons and how to calculate polarity of a bond.  Then I borrowed a crazy-looking device (I told my students it was retro) that sits on top of an overhead projector and links to a graphing calculator so students can see exactly what I type.

I demoed one program.  As I was typing, I explained what each step did for the program.  The kids followed along and created this program with me.  Then I told them they could create another program of their choosing for extra credit, as long as it could be used in chemistry for something useful.  At first, they moaned - they didn't have enough experience, they weren't programmers.  Then they got started and the results were amazing.

Many students wrote programs to solve for density or percent error.  Several tried other things too -- molar mass, stoichiometry.  Some got carried away and created program after program after program.  One of my best students created a program that used matrices to balance any equation! 

One student, who had been a solid worker but just slightly above average, told me she wanted to write something different; she didn't want to do what everyone else did.  I suggested that she start with density, but then make her program tell me if something would sink or float in water.  She started working while I mingled.  One of my best students was struggling to get his program to work correctly and we were troubleshooting.  All of a sudden, the denisty programmer jumped up and screamed - actually screamed - "I did it!"  My top student turned to her and asked for her help on his and she beamed.

I can't say for sure that it was the Hour of Code that turned things around for her, but she became one of my strongest students - almost unstoppable - by second semester.  Some students, though, did sign up for programming because they had tried it in chemistry.  Hopefully, everyone saw that programming isn't too hard for them or beyond their reach.  There were so many payoffs for the Hour of Code I did last year, that I am anxious to try it again this year.  If you can squeeze in an hour-long coding lesson, please do.  It will be a great day and may be the start of something big. 

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