Vail Mountain School kindergartners crack the code in computer classes
Youngsters are learning to solve problems by coding commands for simple robots called Bee-Bots
Who knew writing computer code could lead to so much giggling.
Vail Mountain School teacher Tim Sinnott did. He’s teaching computer coding to VMS kindergarten students.
“Coding is not just a bunch of vocabulary words and commands, it’s a way of thinking and problem solving,” Sinnott said. “I want them to come away with a strong interest in programming, a desire to learn more, and a sense that coding is a fun, creative process.”
Sinnott teaches at both ends of the spectrum, from kindergarten to AP Computer Science for VMS upper school students.
Approaches adapt depending on the class level, of course.
For kindergarten classes, Sinnott places blank boards with carefully plotted grids.
Working in small groups, students create a maze and program their robot to navigate it. The grid corresponds to preset intervals of movement built into Bee-Bots, simple robots that can be programmed with sequences of movements in four directions — forward, back, left, and right. In computer science, this is called algorithmic thinking, a way of getting to a solution by clearly defining the steps needed.
A solution might appear as simple as moving left, forward, forward, right, forward, forward, forward, but to the kindergarten students it’s avoiding a pit of fire, going through a secret passageway, and getting to a castle to save their friend.
Some steps through the algorithm inspire more giggling than others.
“If you touch the hot lava, you die!” said one kindergarten student.
Naturally, the student touches a red circle — the fire — that is a part of an obstacle course he created for his robot. And naturally, he falls into a pile of pillows laughing.
“Coding is a mindset and a way of problem-solving that makes it so much more than just a skill in a student’s toolbox,” Sinnott says. “Computers are everywhere and they run on code written by programmers, so as future leaders, our children must be able to embrace this mindset and develop fluency in these languages.”
The class is the brainchild of VMS lower school director Kristin Douthitt, who approached Sinnott about creating coding sessions just for the kindergarten students. It started by asking what would be beneficial for graduates in the Class of 2031. Coding came to mind.
Douthitt consulted with VMS technology expert Kim Zimmer, and they consulted with Sinnott. Before you can say “Zeroes and Ones” they had a plan.
“I hope to grow this program. I know that this kind of purposeful technology instruction can be transformative,” Douthitt said.
Sinnott says he has seen some unexpected transformations in his kindergarten coders.
“The way that the students collaborated was the real surprise for me,” Sinnott said. “Going into this, I was unsure if sharing, taking turns, and working together would be a stumbling block for students of this age, but they stepped up and navigated these challenges really well.”
That’s an important takeaway, he said.
“Coders rarely work alone in the professional world. It’s an incredibly collaborative process with people spread out across the globe working on the same problem,” he said.
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