For the fourth year in a row, Rackspace employees volunteered in local elementary schools as part of Hour of Code, a global event hosted by Code.org that aims to expose millions of students around the world to the mechanics underlying the games they play and apps they use.
Rackers from offices around the world took time out of work last week to help students learn the basics of coding, with a special emphasis on increasing participation by children who may not be exposed to computer science or be connected at home. Each year Hour of Code is held during National Computer Science Week.
At Rackspace headquarters in San Antonio, the company went a step further, bringing in more than 130 local teachers to train them to better run Hour of Code in their own classrooms.
For all the Rackers who volunteer for Hour of Code each year, said Jeremy Price, a technical trainer in charge of software training curriculum at Rackspace, demand always outstrips supply. Looking for additional ways to meet that demand, organizers hit on a way to expand the pool: train the trainers.
Price, whose mother and mother-in-law are both teachers, learned from them that some teachers have a certain level of fear around not having the technical background to help their students with coding questions. So job one was to allay those fears.
“We invited them to Castle (the nickname for Rackspace HQ) and began with exercises that allowed them to get the logic of coding, but without a computer,” Price explained.
That meant giving each table of teachers a Racker they had to “program” to go across the room to pick up materials and bring them back. The teachers had to work together and break down the basic steps — “Go get the papers” wasn’t going to cut it.
The exercise “took away the mystery in a safe setting” Price said, allowing them to move on practicing with the computer-based games Hour of Code is based on. (This year, the popular new game was based on the Disney movie Moana.)
David Strauss, a second grade teacher at Walzem Elementary School, found the group exercise to program a person to do a task a helpful way to explain coding to younger students.
“Showing them how they can only move three steps and then turn left if that’s what the instructions say is a way to make it real,” he said. “And for the older kids who play video games, it’s so great showing them why something specific happens when you press a button.”
Strauss, who has taught at Walzem for 11 years, is grateful programs like Hour of Code expose students to coding and computer science at such a young age. Incorporating technology across the curriculum is not just critical, it’s fun, he said.
“They get so excited, and I find myself learning right along with them,” he said.
The 5th graders at Walzem Elementary have now been doing Hour of Code for several years, and many of them leap right in once they’ve been given a Chromebook and a url.
Valeria, 11, quickly moved through the levels of the Moana game, steering the heroine on her catamaran through various obstacles using drag and drop snippets of code. By level five, she was embedding repeatable code into her instructions.
Nearby, her classmate Gabe was more distracted, so his teacher, Mrs. Zepeda, steers him to a table to work with one of the two Ozobots Ann Hargrove has brought in as an additional activity.
Hargrove, an Instructional Technology Specialist with the North East Independent School District, works with four campuses in the district, including Walzem, and oversees Hour of Code each year. She talks to the students in each classroom about the bigger picture of computer science as a career, describing not only what they can do, but also how to get there, talking up DATA, the Design And Technology Academy at Ed White Middle School in the district.
“I want them to make the connections, see the path beyond just playing games today,” Hargrove said.
Making connections is what brings Racker Aurora Mendiola back year after year.
A senior manager of training for OpenStack, Aurora speaks Spanish, a boon for the students in Walzem’s bilingual classrooms. She walks from desk to desk, helping the 5th graders when they get stuck.
“I love seeing the lightbulb go off,” she said. “And I’m still always amazed how quickly they pick it up and take off with it. It’s so inspiring.”
At the Rackspace Blacksburg, VA office (affectionately known as Racksburg), Thomas “Tweeks” Weeks oversees that office’s community STEM coding group, Let’s Code Blacksburg!, which annually hosts several Computer Science Education Week/Hour of Code events, including Hour of Code and a RaspberryPi workshop.
Let’s Code Blacksburg is a Rackspace created and run community coding group, he said, “which gives technical Rackers a fun, technological way of giving back to the community.”
In the U.K., Rackers reached more than 200 children in 11 classrooms over two days with a small team of volunteers, said Matt Johns, a product launch manager in the Hayes Hyde Park office.
“Using code.org, we helped the students to come to grips with some basic coding principles,” Johns continued, “and also participated in a Q&A session with a group of older students to help them understand more about IT in the real world, career paths and growing technology areas that they might want to start to focus on.”
Back at the Castle, Price says the team here has plans to expand the teacher training for next year.
With teachers from grades two through high school, Price said the training was deliberately kept basic so everyone would benefit. Next year, he said, “we’d like to create a beginner, medium and advanced training.”