CEDAR FALLS | Cedar Falls junior high students can now say they know the basics of programming a computer thanks to one University of Northern Iowa professor and his students.

In celebration of Computer Science Education Week, Peet and Holmes junior high students went beyond their regimented curriculum and learning the basics of computer programming

"These students are starting to understand why a computer is doing what it's doing," said Ben Schafer, associate professor of computer science at UNI.

He and 36 of his mathematics teaching majors spent the first half of last week introducing eighth-graders to Scratch, simplified programming language designed by MIT. By Thursday afternoon, Peet students were plugging code into a digital Harry Potter story narrative.

The actual syntax of the code is prewritten and presented to students in colored blocks. Students arrange the blocks of code to make their digital characters move on screen and tell a story.

“You’re the director of a play, and this is your stage,” said Hanna Miller, a junior secondary math education student.

The metaphorical "stage" functions on a coordinate grid with "0,0" marking the center. To position characters on the screen, eighth-graders entered coordinates into gaps in the prewritten code.

Thirteen-year-olds Daequan Thomas and Greta Heistad adjusted their coordinates to make a wizard swoop on stage and confront Harry Potter. Enter the wrong coordinates and the images might overlap, interrupting the visual narrative.

“This keeps us very sucked-in and entertained,” Thomas said. “We really have to talk to each other to figure out how to get this to work.”

Thomas and Heistad agreed this project was more interesting than their typical coursework like learning to use Microsoft Office products and keyboarding.

The Cedar Falls project was a two-way street. UNI students learned how to apply concepts of computer science, a new course requirement for math-teaching majors, into core subjects like language arts.

 “Most schools aren’t going to teach computer science, but there are places where principals of computer science and computer program can be incorporated with regular tasks,” Schafer said.

Schafer said the Common Core, new U.S. education standards, do not do enough to acknowledge computer science as a fluency, like reading and math. So projects like this can encourage future teachers to incorporate the science into regular instruction.

Though the Common Core may be found wanting in the eyes of some, President Barack Obama released a video Monday in support of Computer Science Education Week. The theme this year was "Hour of Code," asking each student spend one hour writing lines of computer code.

“Don’t just buy a new video game, make one. Don’t just download the latest app, help design it. Don’t just play on your phone, program it,” Obama said. “No one’s born a computer scientist but with a little hard work, and some math and science, just about anyone can become one."

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Cedar Falls/UNI education reporter for the Courier

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