The computer programming class at Presidio Middle School in San Francisco is humming with excitement as the teacher, Grey Todd, explains the day’s assignment to a group of eager sixth-graders. They’ll be programming a ball to bounce around a computer screen as part of a semester-long class that teaches them the basics of computer programming.
It’s part of a district pilot in 12 middle schools so far, and also one of the first in the country to be teaching students so young to program.
“Whether we like it or not, kids are spending more and more time with screens in front of them. … So to teach them to use that in a responsible way and to be able to control it in a responsible way, I think it’s vital,” Todd said.
The pilot started at the beginning of the school year. If successful, it will expand to a pilot program for preschoolers in the district this spring.
The district already offers computer programming classes as an elective in high schools or as part of afterschool programs in middle and elementary schools. But this will be its first concerted effort to make a computer programming class that’s available and mandatory for all students. The students program in an open-source language called Scratch, developed by MIT and designed for first-time coders. Users create games and animations by moving pieces of code around like building blocks.
Part of the reason behind the district’s push is the hope that it can make a dent in the diversity problem in the computer programming field. According to the district, of all the students who have taken an Advanced Placement computer programming test in high school, less than a quarter were female and only 3 percent were African-American or Latino.
“When you look at who was taking advantage of [our programs] when it was an elective, this is recognition that it didn’t represent our district as a whole or our city as a whole,” said Jim Ryan, the district’s director of STEM education.
SFUSD technology director Bryan Twarek, who has been spearheading the effort, said that students enjoy the class so much because computer programming is really just a way for them to express their creativity. He mentioned that students eventually used programming to design websites or create games of their own creation.
“So our central goals are to make it for everyone, to show them the power of computing, and to learn some of the foundational skills and transferable skills like problem-solving and collaboration,” he said.
According to Grey, most of the students in his sixth-grade class have been catching on quickly. Eleven-year-old Grace Louie, who is a first-time programmer and also the first in her family to program, said she was scared at first. But learning to program has gotten easier.
“This is the first time I’ve programmed and it’s pretty fun so far,” Grace said. “I haven’t run into anything that challenging yet, so hopefully it does get a little harder.”
The district hopes to have computer programming in all preschool and elementary classes by the 2018-19 school year.