MitziAnna Chan, 7, Wheatley Heights, practices how to write basic...

MitziAnna Chan, 7, Wheatley Heights, practices how to write basic computer code during the "Hour of Code" class held at Park Shore Day Camp in Dix HIlls, Saturday, Jan. 16, 2016. Credit: Steve Pfost

Dozens of Long Island school districts are asking students to put down their pencils and pick up their keyboards to learn the tech-savvy skills of computer programming.

About 30 Long Island school districts have contracted to work with kidOYO, a nonprofit that offers digital lessons in more than two dozen programming languages to students in prekindergarten through senior year of high school. Even if they don’t pursue a career in technology, students who learn to code develop valuable problem-solving skills that can help them later in life, educators said.

“Rather than just playing the [video] game of Minecraft, they can generate Minecraft,” said Kings Park school district Superintendent Timothy Eagen, who started offering the training to his fourth- and fifth-grade students earlier this year. “We are teaching students to be creators rather than just consumers.”

The Melville-based kidOYO designed OYOclass, a digital platform students can use to complete programming activities and chat online with mentors from Stony Brook University. OYOclass awards students digital “badges” when they complete certain tasks, said kidOYO co-founder Melora Loffreto.

Twins Caitlin and Lauren Hedges, 10, have already earned nearly a dozen badges since the Kings Park school district began offering the program in October. They even programmed their own digital maps affixed with pop-up explanations about continents and oceans.

“It’s kind of like a game to me, to be perfectly honest,” said Lauren Hedges, who attends R.J.O. Intermediate School in Kings Park. “It’s kind of like [the] Mario [video game]. I keep on failing at a level, but I keep on trying and trying and trying.”

The district plans to make OYOclass available to middle and elementary school students later this year, Eagen said.

In the Half Hollow Hills school district, all students in kindergarten through fifth grade complete a coding project in one of their classes. The district also puts on an annual Night of Code, when teachers and students of all ages share with families the ways their schools are focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education. This year’s event is on Dec. 4

Last year, older students showed off their homemade websites while those in elementary grades demonstrated their knowledge of the fundamentals of programming by pushing buttons on small robots, called Bee-Bots, said Jolynn Sapia, director of technology, business and libraries for the district.

Educators said the focus on young children can help overcome a perennial problem facing the computer science world: Not enough women and minorities are entering the field. Some research suggests children who are introduced to STEM education at a young age are less likely to believe gender-based stereotypes about technology careers later in life.

“You are just taking away the fear,” Sapia said. “You are breaking down every barrier there is.”

Aditi Patil, 17, is already breaking down those barriers. Last year, Patil started XX Coders, an all-girls coding club at the district’s Half Hollow Hills High School East. The group is creating an interactive platform to communicate with teachers and started a summer coding camp for middle school students.

“We got 20 girls who were shy but they wanted to learn coding,” Patil said of XX Coders. “They knew they liked it, but they didn’t have anywhere to go.”

Computer coding programs in schools

  • About 30 Long Island school districts are using OYOclass to teach students programming skills
  • Educators say children who learn to code adopt valuable problem-solving skills
  • Schools are focusing on young students to break gender and race barriers in computer science

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