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Area students, teachers learn coding at summer camp

| Judy Berthiaume

It’s not surprising that when Drew Palmer and his buddies got together this summer they spent some time in front of screens playing video games.

After all, like many tweens, Palmer, a soon-to-be sixth-grader at DeLong Middle School in Eau Claire, enjoys gaming with his friends.

What was surprising is that as Palmer and his friends were trying to blow up asteroids, they also were learning to code so they can someday create their own online games.

Even more surprising is that Palmer’s fifth-grade teacher at Sherman Elementary School, Katie Albin, was in the room with him, also learning to code.

Both were part of UW-Eau Claire’s Blugold Beginnings coding camp, a weeklong summer program that introduces the campers to computer science.

Blugold Beginnings has offered the coding camp for several years, but this year for the first time three Eau Claire Area School District teachers — including Albin — are joining the 50 Chippewa Valley 6th-12th graders who participate, says Jodi Thesing-Ritter, executive director for diversity and inclusion at UW-Eau Claire.

The goal, Thesing-Ritter says, is to help teachers learn how they can incorporate coding into their own teaching, something the educators say would be valuable given the level of interest their students have in technology.

“I want to be a part of this camp because getting kids interested in coding and computer science at a young age is crucial in the world we live in today,” says Albin, who earned her teaching degree from UW-Eau Claire in 2012 and now is pursuing her master's. “Their future jobs will most likely have a major technology component to them so teaching computer science to them as kids will help them in their futures.

“I hope to learn more about coding and computer science so that I can take that information back and integrate it into my 5th-grade classroom next year.”

During the camp, 15 community computer and technology experts, along with 14 UW-Eau Claire students, teach the youth about computer science and coding using CodeCombat, an educational platform designed to teach basic programming language and the fundamentals of computer science.

By joining kids in the camp, the teachers hope to identify ways they can infuse coding into their curriculum during the school year, Thesing-Ritter says, noting that funding from Jamf Nation Global Foundation made it possible to expand the program to include the teachers.

Involving the teachers reflects UW-Eau Claire’s ongoing commitment to being a partner with the community and K-12 educators to better prepare all kids for the workforce, Thesing-Ritter says.

“It’s a really awesome partnership,” Thesing-Ritter says. “This is a perfect example of the kind of seamless educational support among the community, K-12 education and university education that we want to foster to help all kids reach their full potential and build a strong workforce in the Chippewa Valley.”

Thesing-Ritter says she decided to invite teachers to the coding camp after Albin mentioned her desire to bring coding into her classroom.

“Katie mentioned that she’d love to do more of the hands on robots and coding projects in their curriculum but didn’t know where to begin,” Thesing-Ritter says. “That inspired us to think about how we could help make that happen. With Jamf’s support, we are piloting a project this summer where local teachers can learn skills from technology experts that they can then pass onto their students in the classroom. We hope to include even more teachers in future years.”

Albin says many of her fifth-grade students love video games, and many of them talk about wanting to pursue future careers that relate to technology.

“They want to be You Tubers or game developers when they grow up,” Albin says. “At this age, they are sponges and absorb everything. By now, they have had enough math and science to start to understand it so it’s the perfect time to introduce them to coding. I don’t have a background in computer science, but I want to integrate it into my classroom, so this is a great way for me to start.”

By introducing coding in late elementary school, Albin says her students will be better prepared to take advantage of technology-related educational opportunities in middle and high school.

It also may inspire her students to think differently about their futures if they can see how learning about technology can prepare them for many different kinds of jobs, she says.

“These kids have never lived in a world without technology,” Albin says of her students. “They know how to use a cellphone from a very early age. But we need to teach them the power of technology so they are better prepared for their futures. Most of the jobs these kids will have when they grow up don’t even exist yet. I hope I can help open their eyes to a lot of different avenues.”

Being at the camp with the students also gives her opportunities to help them see how coding connects to math and science concepts like variables and order of operations, which they studied in fifth grade, Albin says.

“I can show them how it integrates with what they already worked on,” Albin says. “It’s powerful when we can help them see the real life, everyday applications of the concepts they learn in the classroom.”

In addition to the instruction in campus computer labs, the camp also includes a “Women in Technology” panel discussion, and a daylong field trip that takes participants on visits to technology offices at UW-Eau Claire and to area tech companies.

UW-Eau Claire’s coding camp definitely has piqued the kids’ interest, Albin says.

“It’s fun to watch them,” Albin says. “They are thrilled. They can’t keep their hands off their keyboards. They also are trying things that are new to them and seeking help when they need it. We don’t always see that in a classroom so it’s fun to see them motivated to figure this out and do well.

“I’m so grateful to have the opportunity to be here with them. I’m learning as much as the kids. Already, I have many new ideas for how I can pull this into my curriculum and my classroom.”

What has she learned at the camp that she is most excited to share with her students come fall?

“Coding is really cool,” Albin says.

Photo caption: Katie Albin, a fifth-grade teacher at an Eau Claire elementary school, was one of three teachers who were part of this summer’s Blugold Beginnings coding camp. She hopes to incorporate coding into her classroom.