Fourth grade students at Marlinton Elementary School share their knowledge of computer coding with students in other classes in recognition of Computer Science Week. From left: Kenny Bennett, Carter Faulknier, Gavin Malcom and Damien Benentt work on a tablet. Malcom was the mentor to the three third graders in Pam McCurdy’s class. Photo courtesy of Brian Smith.

Suzanne Stewart
Staff Writer

The week of December 4 was Computer Science Week and, to celebrate, Marlinton Elementary School fourth grade teacher Brian Smith and his class had something special in store for all the students at their school – an hour of computer code writing.

Smith began teaching fourth grade computer science several years ago, so his students – the experts – visited each class at MES and taught the students how to write code.

“We got all the classes except for one,” Smith said. “[Denise] Burns could not fit us in, so we went to every class in the school from PreK through fifth grade and did computer science activities with all the kids for one hour across the course of that week. Whenever we finished, the kids got a little certificate that said ‘I completed an Hour of Code,’ and it has their name on it.”

This is the second year Smith and his class have visited other classes to share the knowledge of writing code and students caught on quick. The fourth grade students were paired up with students in each class and they guided them through code writing programs on tablets and laptops.

“The idea was – my kids are the experts, mentors, and they went in to be the teacher for somebody else – even a fifth grader in a few cases – but our real focus was on the little guys and giving them that experience,” Smith said. “We used a variety of apps and resources on the tablets to let the kids experience what it looks like to write computer programming in very simplistic language.”

The programs are written specifically for children to learn how to code. One program has students moving blocks around on the screen by “telling” it what to do with code. It is a simple way to get into code and it gets students interested in the basic principles of computer science.

“It was, overall, very successful,” Smith said. “All the kids enjoyed themselves. My class did a nice job. We’ll try each year to do a bit more to continue the process.”

Smith began teaching computer science in his class when he saw a push in the county for that type of education. With the addition of computer science at Pocahontas County High School, taught by Laurel Dilley, and the growth of the math program with math coach Joanna Burt-Kinderman, Smith decided to include coding in his class.

“I’m starting at this level as early as possible to get them some hands-on experience with programming,” Smith said. “Of course, to really sweeten the deal, we’ve got two sets of robots in the county, so the kids get to play with those. Once they learn programming, they can program the robots to do a little maze on the floor and zip around the room. That’s kind of one of the end games is to get to learn enough to get to do something like that.”

Visitors to MES may not realize it, but the random strips of tape on the floors of the hallways and Smith’s classroom are not, in fact, random. They were tracks for the robots.

“If you see tape or Xs in the hallway, that’s all mine because we were doing stuff with robots,” he said, laughing. “We did do some work – the NASA center in Fairmont, the research center, they do have some robotics kits they loan out, so I did get those, and we used them in class. We don’t have a robotics team, but we did bring in the robots and did a couple of weeks experimenting with those. I set up some navigation courses on the floor, and they just had to drive around them.”
In an age where technology is second nature to students, Smith said it’s interesting how quickly the students pick up the programming skills and the excitement he sees in them when they figure out a new code.

“They certainly pick it up pretty quickly,” he said. “Even we found out, when we went in to classes, my kids were surprised at how fast the PreK or kindergarten kids picked it up. My fourth graders were like, ‘wow this kid’s good.’ They were bragging them up.

“I guess the term is digital native – that’s just what they’ve grown up in,” he continued. “That’s what they’ve always experienced. They’ve always had iPads and iPhones and apps. Touch navigations and all that stuff that would seem foreign to sit down with an adult and say, ‘hey, check this out,’ is really old hat to them.”

Smith says he has seen a change in students – some whom he knew would pick up the programming easily, but also some who may struggle in other subjects, but really thrive at computer science.

Seeing how important technology is in everyday life, Smith said he knew it would be important for the students to get a leg up in the world if they could get started with computer science early.

“The more I did this, I was like, ‘this needs to be part of what I do on some kind of regular basis,’” he said. “It was going to be a good direction for our county – looking at ways to open up new doors for people who lived here. You don’t have to leave Pocahontas County to have a great job.

“One of my lead-ins when we did this last week was, ‘who likes computer games?’ ‘Who likes video games?’ ‘Now imagine if someone paid you bunches of money just to play or make games?’” Smith continued. “All their hands are up, and they’re all excited. I told them, ‘that could be your reality some day, guys, as a computer scientist, if you learn to do this.’”
Along with preparing students for a future in technology, Smith has seen computer science bring his students together, and it has also brought out leadership skills in students.

“One of the cool things that I like about it – that I found out early on – is it was a great way to see collaboration because I do a lot of group working in class and sometimes kids don’t like that,” he said. “They just want to do their own thing, but with this, they were getting to problems where they got stuck, and they were seeking out collaboration whereas before it would have been like, ‘I don’t want to work with that person,’ or ‘I don’t want to work in a group.’ It forced that collaboration in a way that if I tried as a teacher to force it, they would be grumbling and complaining, but they needed to do it – to collaborate to solve some of those puzzles – so that’s been a cool aspect, as well.”

With the push to add more technology into education and the classroom, Smith said he embraces the idea. He is excited to see his students excel in a subject that could lead to a great career for them.