By DAVID GREEN
Fifteen years from now, every student will take a class in computer coding, says Morenci third grade teacher Melissa Elliott.
But in 2015? More than three dozen Morenci kids learned the basics of coding last week, and that's a good start. In all, about 50 people met in Morenci Elementary School's new computer lab to participate in the Hour of Code project scheduled each year during Computer Education Week.
Hour of Code kicked off in 2013 with about 15 million people around the world taking part. That included a class of Morenci sixth graders at the middle school and the chemistry class at the high school.
"I was very, very pleased," Mrs. Elliott said. "We had students from kindergarten to seventh grade. There were some parents, a few siblings, a grandfather."
The event kicked off with a visit from Morenci mayor Jeff Bell who read a proclamation from the governor of Michigan, followed by a welcome from school superintendent Mike McAran. Elementary school principal Gail Frey led the group in an exercise of "crossing the midline" to help students' thought process move back and forth between the two hemispheres of the brain. Coding requires both logic and creativity, Mrs. Elliott explained, and crossing back and forth doesn't always come easily for young children.
And then the fun began.
"The room settled down so quickly," she said. "The level of engagement was very impressive. It's something students were really interested in. Eventually you could hear kids cheering and yelling, 'I did it.'"
The Code.org organization offered three basic tutorials for students to explore: one based on characters from Frozen, another relating to Star Wars and the third focusing on Minecraft.
"A few of the older kids dug in deeper," Mrs. Elliott said.
That's exactly what Code.org would like to see. The non-profit organization pushes toward the goal of having computer science class part of every school's curriculum—a core subject like mathematics and biology.
An interactive map on the group's website shows the demand for computing jobs in every state. In Michigan there are more than 17,000 open computer jobs to fill. The tally reaches 21,000 in Ohio.
Sixty-seven percent of all new STEM jobs (science, technology, engineering and math) are in computing, yet only eight percent of STEM graduates studied computer science. Graduates from around the world are coming to America to fill the vacancies, and they generally earn 40 percent more than a typical college graduate.
"If we want to stay competitive, we need to make these opportunities available for our kids, too," Mrs. Elliott said.
Code.org also pushes to have more women involved in coding work, and Mrs. Elliott was pleased to see the interest shown last week.
"There was a row of girls who got more comfortable as the time went by," she said. "It was fun to see them get excited and many of them said they would do it again. It's not for everyone, but I would like to have everyone try it out."
Computer classes have been around for a long time, but in the past they've emphasized keyboarding skills, word processing and presentations.
"But writing code is a different animal," Mrs. Elliott said, "and both are essential."
She sees Hour of Code as an excellent way to give students an enjoyable introduction to the challenge.
"It was fun to see the smiles on kids' faces," she said. "If we create the opportunities, I think kids will take them. They're learning to solve problems that we aren't even aware of yet."
This is an exciting time for teachers, Mrs. Elliott said, although she feels that she's always on the learning curve.
"Technology changes much faster than education. Our challenge will be to keep up."