Coding Comes of Age

Coding is gradually making its way from club to curriculum, thanks largely to the nationwide science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) phenomenon embraced by so many American schools.

Coding Comes of Age

Tampa Preparatory School has taken the plunge into coding. Tenth graders at the Florida school can choose a STEM-focused curriculum that offers courses in Robot C, C programming and Swift iOS app development for iPads to go along with classes in engineering and robotics.

According to Chad Lewis, director of technology at Tampa Prep, the STEM focus requires students to at least be entering Algebra II in 10th grade, in addition to a high level of success in prior math and science classes. STEM students, as well as others, may opt for coding-specific courses that feature Python programming that can be used to build apps for the iPad. "Using Python, one of our students built a tardy check system that we use in the school every day," Lewis said. "They connect a USB scanner, and the kids scan their ID card when they're tardy. It will automatically print out their time and picture and e-mail the attendance dean. Our coding students are leveraging Python, Linux and other coding languages, and it all integrates into the Google Apps ecosystem."

Tampa Prep also offers a Cyber Patriot Club for "white hat" hacking, as well as a Coding for Girls camp. Far from abandoning the club realm, Lewis said he merely believes that coding (aka "hacking") is too important not to be featured in the curriculum. And while he said he believes computer science is essential, he contends that the creative and practical aspects of coding are crucial ingredients to maintain student interest. 

Once relegated to after-school and extracurricular activity status, coding is steadily making its way into the curriculum, both in the United States and abroad. The nationwide embrace of STEM-infused curricula has accelerated coding's ascendance.

Zach Latta, executive director and founder of San Francisco-based Hack Club, said the rise of coding is closely tied to a problem-solving ethos that beckons students to build new solutions. Latta provides coding curricula free of charge to help students in America, and internationally, to start coding clubs.

"We started 2016 with 42 schools, and now we've more than tripled in size to 150 schools," said the 19-year-old Latta, who was named one of Forbes' "30 Under 30" (Educational Category) in 2016.

"Cupertino High School's club leader told me he started with 70 at the first meeting, and was expecting half to drop off. But they had over 60 people come to every single club meeting. They told me some students were even quitting sports to join the club. We were in seven countries earlier this year. Today we are in 13 countries."

Latta said more computer science mandates will inevitably continue to appear in school curricula, but ultimately it's not enough to spark the lasting enthusiasm that can fill the professional void. "There is a dearth of computer scientists and software engineers," he said. "However, Hack Club's expressed goal is to create more hackers in the world. These are people who build things [largely using HTML, CSS and JavaScript] that often un-intuitively change the world."

Computer Science Helps Put the 'A' in STEAM

Ly Nguyen, a computer science teacher at Mountain View High School in Mountain View, CA, has moved beyond the now familiar "hour of coding" that many high schools are doing throughout the country. In addition to the Computer Science Club, the Girls-Who-Code Club and the Robotics Team, Mountain View High School has Intro to Computer Science, AP Computer Science and an App and Game Design class. Yet another Advanced Computer Science class will be added in 2017, and Nguyen said the class will incorporate coding in the course work.

Particularly in the App and Game Design class, the main function is to write code and build apps and games on a large scale. App and Game Design ends up being the perfect place to add the "A" (for arts) in STEM to make STEAM.

"A lot of art can be involved in computer science when you design games," said the 35-year-old Nguyen, a 12-year teaching veteran. "When you design a user interface, you would need the mindset of an artist to make the interface look beautiful. Computer science has become a field that is very broad. No longer do you just need a specialized person who does coding; you need a person who knows art to contribute. Many different disciplines can combine to make a wonderful product." "We're also trying to [incorporate art] at Tampa Prep," added Chad Lewis. "What we need are classes that have specific curriculum elements that use arts in STEM. We do have some art students in our Introduction to Design classes where they learn computer aided drafting/design. These arts students want to be able to develop art projects using CAD. They want to take their skills in art and transfer them to the digital realm."

The Earlier Grades

With a total enrollment of slightly more than 100, the one-school (K–8) Congress Elementary School District is in many ways the perfect laboratory for introducing younger children into the world of coding. Located in the town of Congress, AZ, the rural school has capitalized on the popularity of robotics to unobtrusively show students the power of code.

"As I was helping to develop the curriculum for Lego Robotics, a large piece of it was programming," said Suzanne Sims, IT Director at the Congress Elementary School District. "We looked for resources beyond the Lego programming software to provide an enriched understanding of coding. The website provided self-paced tutorials for students and a comprehensive curriculum."

With the growing popularity of robotics, and an all-school participation in the Hour of Code, many students began to become more interested in programming. That interest led teachers and administrators to make plans for integrating coding directly into the curriculum. Additional teacher training from followed, and enthusiasm has grown from there.

"K–2 students have Android tablets, and teachers are taking the initiative with coding apps such as The Foos," Sims said. "Now we have implemented a maker space once a week for the entire school. Some created passion projects include the use of coding. Many students are also learning Scratch to create apps that integrate with their project. Other additions are the Dash and Dot robots using Blockly."

The Student Perspective

Far from the hotbed of Silicon Valley, schools such as Roslyn High School in Roslyn Heights, NY (Long Island), have also embedded coding within the coursework. Rachel Sterneck, a senior at Roslyn, reported that the school currently offers two classes that heavily integrate coding into the mix — Intro to Java and AP Computer Science.

During her junior year, Sterneck confessed, she found her computer science courses "rigid and boring" with what amounted to too much top-down instruction. After taking additional courses outside of high school, Sterneck said, "I decided to start a coding club in my high school because I felt the classes I was taking outside of school were a lot more hands-on. We were learning how to make websites and apps, instead of just copying down notes from our teacher. So the coding club would amplify my experience."

While researching possible curricula, Sterneck found Hack Club's website ( from a Google search. "I applied and spoke to Zach Latta, and he agreed to work with me," she said. "Ever since I started working with Hack Club, the coding club in my high school has been so successful. We have about 35 students at each meeting, which is a lot more than the average size club in my high school."

Latta's mission to produce hackers who build new things and solve problems has resonated with Sterneck and coding club members. "There is no limit to what you can code, and what you can actually build with code," Sterneck said. "If you have any idea, you can put all the effort you want into it and make whatever you want. The resources that Hack Club uses are cloud-based, so even if you are working on a school computer, you can still work on it at home."

Outside the United States, Hack Club has helped lay the foundation for coding clubs as far flung as India and beyond. Students such as Athul Blesson, a 12th grader at Sree Sarada Vidyalaya secondary school in Mattoor, Kalady, Kerala, India, can now join the coding club or take coding classes where students have the option to learn HTML, C++, C and Java.

"Coding helps me visualize my ideas," Blesson said. "Before coding, I was a very silent person who never got involved in any sort of extracurricular activities. I was lazy. When I started coding, it gave me confidence and it took away my laziness. Student-led coding clubs like Hack Club provide a very good opportunity to learn coding.

"When I started my first Hack Club, I got great positive response," continued Blesson. "More than half of my school became part of my club.… Clearly, coding is a basic literature in this digital age. It teaches us an interactive way of learning, and it is a great way to bring ideas and innovations to life."

Elisha Coad, a junior at Classical Christian Academy, a private school in Post Falls, ID, has taken coding matters into his own hands, also with help from Hack Club. "There are no programming or coding classes at my school, and no coding clubs except for mine," Coad said. "There are no local hackathons or events of the sort. Because of this, my coding club is the only exposure to programming my members receive." 

Even as more schools catch up to the coding phenomenon via specific courses, the club route will remain viable as a separate venue for pure creativity. Ultimately, it's that creativity that attracts students in the first place. "I love the mental challenge that coding provides, and how there is almost always something new to learn," Coad said. "Technology is only becoming more prevalent in our daily lives. To know how to wield it feels amazing."