October 10, 2012 | Myrna Anderson

Computer science profs are teaching local middle and high school students programming logic.

When Victor Norman was a kid, he taught himself computer programming on Saturdays in a closet at his high school. "My dad was the principal, so I could get in there," he remembered.

Now a Calvin professor of computer science (CS), Norman spends Saturday mornings teaching the rudiments of computer programming to Grand Rapids middle and high school students. His CS colleague Joel Adams does the same for students at Grand Rapids Christian Middle School.

Their program, funded by a grant from the John and Judy Family Spoelhof Institute for Christian Leadership in Business, is called TeCreate. “It rhymes with recreate, and the idea is learn to be creative with technology,” Norman said.

Creating vs. consuming

It’s an important message to preach, said Adams, because while today's youth are adept at playing with software—in the form of games or social media such as Facebook and Twitter—they're not as adept at creating it.

Nor are they learning how to create it, Adams said: “Students, by and large, are not getting the logical skills in either middle school or high school to shine in an introductory computer science class in college. This is a way to do that."

TeCreate introduces programming to students using gentle, forgiving environments. Norman and Adams use programs called Alice, developed at Carnegie Mellon University, and Scratch, developed at MIT, to teach students the logic of programming. Alice is a 3-D programming environment; Scratch is 2-D; and both allow students to create simple games and animations.

The 25 seventh and eighth graders in this year’s middle-school edition of TeCreate seem to favor games populated by trolls, ghosts, wizards, sharks and—in one case, Indiana Jones (and a shark). On a recent Tuesday afternoon, the students gathered in a computer lab at Grand Rapids Christian Middle School, and, after a quick snack, worked through an Alice tutorial led by Adams. They learned to drag and drop graphic tiles (blocks of code) to first create scenes and characters and then bring them to life. They spent the last 25 minutes of class working on their imaginary worlds and troubleshooting each others’ work.

“You've got to set the 'y' position to negative one,” one student counseled another who was stuck in a programming quandary. “Then you'll be underwater.”

Ashley Bingle, a 19-year-old Calvin CS and math major, hovered near the back of the computer lab, helping students who had missed the first week of the class. Bingle also worked with TeCreate last year, its inaugural year. “I like seeing the students get excited when they learn something new about programming,” she said.

Herself an aspiring programmer, Bingle is the daughter of two Calvin computer science grads. She grew up in Orlando, Fla., and her father works in IT at Disney. “I guess I always hoped their skills would pass down to me,” she said.

Where the jobs are

Norman and Adams hope that TeCreate will inspire a lot of kids to take up computing. Increasingly, they say, that’s where the jobs are. Adams cited a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that computing will be one of the fastest-growing U.S. job markets in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields in the foreseeable future. And the largest portion of STEM jobs will be for software developers.

Adams explained why: “Think about the iPad … ,” he said. “Let’s say a team of 100 people generated that. Now look at how many applications that run on the iPad are in Apple’s App Store. There are at least 600,000. That’s the scale for software development… . Every company wants an app. Every company wants a webpage—and not just a webpage that sits there, but one that is interactive. The modern business world runs on software, and very few secondary schools are teaching students the algorithmic thinking skills needed to develop it.”

Programming is not only a wise career option, it’s an enjoyable one, Adams maintained. He cited a recent CareerCast study which found that Software Engineer was the #1 career choice for 2012 because of that job’s work environment, lack of stress and hiring outlook—among other benefits.

One thing that deters kids from careers in computer programming, the professors said, is the notion that much of the U.S. computer industry is being outsourced. Which is true, said Norman: “It’s being outsourced to companies in the U.S.” (Only 40 percent of computing jobs that are outsourced in the U.S. are being off-shored to other countries.)

Learning toys

TeCreate isn’t the only program that Adams and Norman have devised to interest young people in computers. Since 2007, Adams has run a camp called Imaginary Worlds that teaches middle school-ers to program in Alice and Scratch. Last spring, he and CS professor Keith Vander Linden taught local high school students six weeks of Scratch and six weeks of another MIT program, App Inventor.

To make programming even more enticing, the professors have used the Spoelhof Family Institute funds to buy small programmable robots, Microsoft’s KODU programming language and X-Box Kinect sensors for future TeCreate classes.

“I want to give students that joy,” said Norman. “That’s part of our TeCreate motto: to experience the joy of programming.”

At least one TeCreate student is feeling it. Eighth grader Sam Tuit learned Scratch and programming last year in TeCreate, and he feels like he’s catching on to Alice pretty easily. “It’s just fun to make your own stuff,” he said.

Norman understands: “When I’m bored and have no energy left,” he said, “I write code. It's my creative outlet”

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