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Designed for the future: Schoolcraft offers new computer design class

Eighth-graders at Schoolcraft Learning Community this year have been learning how to do computer programming. (From left) Drew Kluthe and Elliot Anderson-Cameron program simulations on laptop computers at Schoolcraft.

BEMIDJI -- The good guy runs around, trying to collect gold coins while evading the green monsters on his trail.

A contagion model offers a visual of how interactions between the healthy and sick can spread illness at varying rates.

A simulation demonstrations in detail the process through which water is converted to steam.

These are the work of eighth-graders at Schoolcraft Learning Community, a public K-8 charter school at Concordia Language Villages. This week marks National Charter Schools Week.

"I really love this class," said Elliot Anderson-Cameron. "It's really fun and I've learned a lot about computer programming. Also, it's different from a normal class. This is really a lot of hands-on learning. You're actually doing."

The course, Computer Design, is being offered at Schoolcraft for the first time this year. Eighth-graders are learning firsthand how to write and design code to program their own computer simulations and activities. The course is expected to expand next year to younger grades as well.

"I've learned a lot about computers and spacial thinking," said Tommy Saxton. "I've had to come up with solutions on my own, to tell the computer what to do."

The course is taught by Marilyn Delaney, the middle school math teacher who attended a weeklong training last summer to learn to teach the course, based on scalable game design.

"It's scalable because it really is limitless what you can do with it," Delaney said.

She instructed the students on the fundamental commands and walked them through introductory applications, such as Frogger, the game through which a frog has to hop across a road and bodies of water to reach the other side.

Then, as the students became more proficient, they were given general assignments and asked to create and program their own simulations.

"At first, when (the class) started, I didn't think I would like it. I thought it would be like math, or (involve) more math, because Marilyn's our math teacher," said Shelby Ewert. "But it's creative and I do like it."

For example, with Frogger, the students were able to design the look of the frog and the obstacles it would have to overcome. Likewise, through her contagion simulation, Shelby could decide what the classroom looked like and the appearance of the characters themselves.

"She gave us some of the rules to get started," Shelby said of her teacher. "But then we had to figure it out on our own."

That is part of the overall goal, to provide opportunities for students to learn to problem-solve.

"Kids don't know what to do when they don't know what to do," Delaney said. "They don't know how to problem-solve. ... This is all problem-solving. You come up with the idea of, 'This is what I want, and you have to break it down into the steps and then you test it. Did you get the right result? No, something's wrong, and so it's just a mass of doing it over and over again.' Now instead of getting frustrated, they see it as a challenge."

Delaney said, too, the course is a good way to introduce the students to computer science. Not that she expects all the students to pursue engineering and programming, but she wants them to know that they are options, so she volunteers information on the job shortages that exist in those industries.

"I shared with the kids that last summer Google's college interns got $6,700 a month and they couldn't fill the spots because there's not enough," she said, noting that drone technology is now an emerging demand as well.

For the students, the course is also an opportunity to view their "techy" gadgets in a new light.

"They all love technology, they're using it daily," said Stacy Bender-Fayette, Schoolcraft's technology integration specialist who helps in the class and will undergo the weeklong training herself this summer. "Now they're thinking more critically about those programs, so when you use that app on your phone, how does that work?"

Soren Dybing was interested in the course even before it started, knowing that he liked to play video games and was intrigued by the idea of programming.

"It's fun to actually program games," he said. "I look at video games I play so differently now. I think about, How was that made? and the graphics in games nowadays, I mean we're just drawing little (stick figures)."