First-graders learn the science and power of algorithms

Photo by Daniel Jackovino Rosemary Vetrano, Demarest Elementary School media arts specialist, watches a first-grader solve a problem by moving a digital image across the surface of a smart board.

BLOOMFIELD, NJ — Demarest Elementary School first-graders had a lesson in computer literacy last Friday, Dec. 7, as part of the 2018 Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 3-9. It was taught by Rosemary Vetrano, the media-arts specialist, and was a basic lesson in coding, or how to program a computer to do what you want it to do. The children were seated on the library floor. In front of them was a smart board whose surface was an interactive computer screen.

“We have to learn a big word first,” Vetrano said.
The big word was algorithm. None of the children knew what it meant.
“It means taking a step-by-step method of solving a problem,” she said. “You have to, so everything is in order to solve a problem.”
A simple cartoon of “Jack and Jill” was displayed in motion on the smart board. The three stanzas of the poem were heard. After breaking his crown, Jack ran home and got into bed with bandages treated with vinegar wrapped around his head.

The children were then shown images from the cartoon. Using a pointer with a tennis ball stuck to it as a cursor, they took turns putting the images in the order of the “Jack and Jill” story. Next, the children were shown words from the poem. These were out of place and had to be put into order. Next on the smart board were two images of Jack, side-by-side. His head was bandaged as he recuperated in bed. The two images did not match exactly and the children had to point out the differences.

“Programmers look for errors,” Vetrano said.
She was also asked why Jack was using vinegar for a head injury and she replied that it must have been a cure.
To show the potential of these algorithm baby steps, a third-grader, coincidentally named Jack, was brought into the class. The first-graders were informed he had been taught some basics a few days earlier and at home explored the potential of working step-by-step. He had created a music video of dancing moose with music by Bruce Springsteen. Jack showed the first-graders what he had done and how to build on previous commands. Principal Mary Todaro, who was watching the lesson, told the first-graders that she liked how Jack was telling the computer what to do — that it was not the computer thinking, but Jack.

In an email, Vetrano said younger students can be overwhelmed by coding and first learn that problems can be solved step-by-step. Familiar nursery rhymes are used for these rudimentary lessons.

“That is how I start with my kindergarten and first grade,” she said. “We learn that algorithms are step-by-step directions used to complete a task or solve a problem.”

They next learn very basic programming called Blockly programming which utilizes games to develop programming skills.
“I do these things with kindergarten and first-graders ‘unplugged,’ meaning without the students on the computers one-to-one,” she said. “All other grades go on the computers themselves and try their hand at programming.”

Second- to sixth-graders are involved with actual programming, Vetrano said. Activities to learn this are provide by the website code.org. The website features an activity this year called “Dance Party.”

“We take a look ‘under the hood’ at what is really going on behind the visual Blockly program,” Vetrano said. “I like the students to see that behind the colorful blocks that they logically and sequentially move to create action there is actual coding taking place.”

Todaro said next year, one-on-one Chromebooks will be available throughout the school district down to the sixth-grade. The district goal is for fifth- and fourth-graders to eventually have Chromebooks. At Demarest, kindergartners through third-graders have computer access in their homerooms and the media arts room.

In an email, the director of elementary education, Joseph Fleres, said Bloomfield elementary school media specialists are instrumental in ensuring that students are well-prepared.

“As we continue to embark on our 1:1 district Chromebook initiative,” he said, “it is pertinent that our students are not only computer literate, but are able to apply the use of a Chromebook during everyday instruction.”

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