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Piedmont schools offer coding class to 5th-8th-graders

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Piedmont Middle School computer class

PIEDMONT — Dominic McMath is built like a college linebacker, but when he stooped to help students at Piedmont Middle School on Wednesday, he took on the demeanor of a teacher and spoke with the language of a computer programmer.

About 30 minutes into an after-school computer programming class Wednesday, he leaned over Sarah Farmer’s desk to help troubleshoot. A few minutes later he stood back up, gave the girl a high five and scanned the room for more students in need of help.

McMath, a high school teacher, and Christy Crosson, an elementary school teacher, are teaming up this fall to teach 31 fifth- through eighth-graders how to make computer programs in weekly after-school sessions. The class is extending the school day for this group and giving more students the chance to experience programming using a simplified system that employs kid-friendly language and themes.

“I think the earlier we can expose kids to STEM fields — in this case computer science — the better,” said Superintendent Matt Akin. “It’s a neat way to get kids attracted to programming where normally they wouldn’t be attracted.”

The class is based on curriculum produced by Google and is called Google Computer Science First. According to the company website, the program was developed to increase student exposure to computer science.

The programming language students use in the class is called Scratch, and is a simplified version of the coding languages offered in upper-level grades, said McMath, who teaches math and computer science to older students.

Students in the after-school program used the language Wednesday to mix pre-recorded songs and create a character that dances to the beat of the music. McMath and Crosson said, though simplified, the lessons the students learn will help prepare them for more advanced programming languages.

“It’s all-encompassing and it gives them that little bit of edge that kids who don’t have this won’t have,” said Crosson.

When the class opened this fall, there was such a demand that teachers had to turn some students away, limiting the class to 31 students. Educators selected students by drawing their names at random, Crosson said, and wound up with a room that is half filled with girls —  a group that is today underrepresented in technology jobs.

Crosson said programming could open up new opportunities for students and expose girls to a field they’ve traditionally been left out of.

“I thought, ‘We need to do this,’” she said, noting that girls are finding that they can fuse a love of creativity with technology through computer science.

Fifth-grade student Hannah Barbee slid her earphones from her head and explained why she wanted to learn to program computers.

“I like computers and I thought it would be fun,” said said, adding that she wants to one day work as a computer engineer or a veterinarian.

A few feet to her left sat Chris Chandler, an eighth-grader who other students credited with having a knack for programming games. Already, he said, he has used the skills he learned in class to program at least six games in his free time.

“I dream to be a software designer,” Chandler said.

Staff writer Laura Gaddy: 256-235-3544. On Twitter @LGaddy_Star.