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Family Code Faire

By Aaron Brengard
Communicator
November 2015, Volume 39, Issue 3

“Four forward. Turn left. Three forward. Turn right. Ready? Go!”  When you enter the K. Smith Elementary School Family Code Faire, this is what you might hear. No, we’re not playing hide-n-seek. We’re coding.

Since the start of the Hour of Code (by code.org), our school has participated. The idea of coding in elementary school may be new, but it’s easy to see the benefits. Being located in San Jose, California—the heart of Silicon Valley—the need for coding, computer science, engineering, and robotics is easy to connect to careers with tech giants all around us, such as Google, Apple, and Cisco. It’s also easy to see the development of critical thinking, problem-solving skills, and even persistence—all essential life and career skills.   

With the room lit by neon strings of lights and some techno-electronic music playing in the background, K. Smith School opened its doors to our annual Family Code Faire. Each year during the Hour of Code we’ve held a fun family night of coding and robotics.  It’s a chance to bring computer science to the whole family.

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Manuel Munguia, a kindergarten teacher and self-proclaimed tech “geek” organizes the annual event.  “Even though we are just miles away from many of the leading global tech companies we are worlds apart,” notes Munguia. With high poverty rates, our families face an access problem. “I want to remove that problem. And give parents an opportunity to understand the value in coding and computer engineering right along with their children.”

The event brings the best of many aspects of computer science and coding together. For this interactive event, Munguia sets up a number of stations from visual coding to robotics. “Not everyone will end up in a tech job, but we all need to have a basic comfort with the concepts of coding and how computers work. It’s not magic,” explains Munguia. The way the Family Code Faire is set up proves just that.  Here is a description of a few of the favorites.

In one corner of the room we find the Bee-Bots.  These early elementary “robots” give a great entry into computer coding. Users must sequence, estimate, and problem solve to get the sturdy little “Bee” to move from one spot to another on a grid.  The challenge engages Antonio and his grandmother Maria Caro. “It is important because my kids and grandkids are learning this. I was learning, too,” said Caro.  With each failure, Antonio re-enters the sequence with an adjustment he made from the previous attempt. As the little robot made its final turn and headed to the correct spot on the grid, Antonio’s smile grew and arms raised in the air. Success!

Another station included a bank of computers and iPads to allow children to share the Hour of Code with their parents.  With every student participating during the school day, this was a chance to impress the adults.  Using familiar games like Angry Birds and Plants vs. Zombies, the leveled tasks slowly increase through 20 levels of coding challenges. Parents can see the benefit. “I can see that my daughter is thinking hard and able to do this. She has the ability to program,” remarked a parent.

On the stage was another robotics demonstration. This one was with Sphero robots, an app enabled robotic ball, and the Tickle App, a visual coding app that works with the Sphero robots. Students were challenged with a game.  The object is to score before your opponents by getting your Sphero in the net. Sounds easy, but participants need to avoid a number of obstacles in the field and anticipate their opponent’s moves. One battle brought two best friends head to head. Jose and Oscar each grabbed their iPads and began to code. Each programmer used the visual coding to quickly set a sequence including direction, speed, “if-then” actions, and even color.  Once set, the game began. With each goal, the sequence and complexity of code increased. “Jose and Oscar are naturals,” remarked Mr. Munguia. “They have been very motivated to learn how to code. These two know they are not just playing a game. They are writing and designing it.”

The Family Code Faire has been a great way to bring computer coding and robotics to the whole family. Not only does it showcase the talents of our students, but brings understanding of the possibilities to our parents. Norma Vazquez, mother of Oscar, can see it.  “When my children grow up they are going to have the skills to access better careers.”  Antonio’s grandmother knows, too. “It is going to be useful in everything we do in the future. To understand coding, you understand how tech gadgets work. Tech is only going to get more advanced. We are going to use more and more tech in everyday life. And I want my children to be part of it.”

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Holding a Family Code Faire is easy. Choose a few of your favorite coding sites or tools and invite families to come play. It’s that easy. Since the start of the Hour of Code, there are tons of free and low cost resources available.  And if money is available, the sky is the limits.

Here’s a list of the resources we used:

  • Hour of Code: Free website with coding games and resources.
  • Sphero: A programmable robotic sphere.
  • Tinkle App: Visual programming app that connects to the Sphere robots.
  • Lego robotics: Build and program your own robots and machines.
  • Bee Bots: Early age programmable robots.
  • Kibo: Early age programming with easy to link blocks.
  • Scratch: Visual programming language that teaches the basics of coding.
  • Blockly: Google created visual programming language that teaches coding through games.
  • Snap: UC Berkeley created visual programming language.
  • Tynker: Visual programming language that offers classroom metrics

Mr. Munguia is already planning for this year’s Family Code Faire. The benefits are so clear to him. “I want to give the whole family access to the endless possibilities.”

Aaron Brengard is principal of Katherine Smith Elementary School in San Jose, California.

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