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Meet Dylan Ryder, a 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovator

Dylan RyderDylan Ryder (@DylanMRyder) is one of WNET’s 2015 PBS LearningMedia Digital Innovators and an educational technologist at The School at Columbia University, the university’s K-8 laboratory school in New York City, New York. Dylan chronicles his thoughts, lesson plans and units on his blog as he works to help students use technology safely, responsibly and creatively – with particular attention to engineering, computer science and design. We caught up with Dylan to learn more about how he used coding in his classroom and how  apprehensive teachers can start to use coding with their students.

1.  You teach coding to students in grades K-8. Why is it important to expose younger students to coding?
Computing is quickly becoming a new and important literacy. We live up in an age rich with digital technology and computing has profoundly changed our world. Computers have generated new ways for us to communicate, share, learn, play, build, and create.

We have to teach ourselves and our students how to have more agency over our computing devices, and we do that through computer programming.  It’s a powerful thing to teach young people how to turn their own ideas into code, and watch them express themselves and solve problems with computer programming.

2.  How can teachers get started with teaching coding?
The Code.org website is a great starting point for an investigation. The site contains a number of short digital activities that will run on laptops or tablets, and they also have a number of CS Unplugged activities that don’t require devices at all.

PBSLM Nova for DR Interview

The NOVA Cybersecurity Lab Game and other resources can be found on PBS LearningMedia – with accompanying lesson plans!

I also strongly recommend the Scratch Creative Computing Curriculum Guide, which is free for download. It contains a wealth of classroom activities for students and assessment guidance for elementary and middle school teachers. If you are introducing high school students to computer programming, I recommend The Beauty and Joy of Computing, which is another terrific introductory computer science curriculum that is freely available.

3.What PBS LearningMedia resources are helpful for teaching about coding?
My students love the PBS NOVA Cybersecurity Lab interactive game and videos. I introduced it as an in-class activity, and many of them reported that they would watch the videos and play the coding challenges at home, even though it was never a homework assignment!

4. Describe an interesting project your students did after they learned how to code.
We like to incorporate simple sensors into our programming activities as soon as we can. Once they’ve developed some base skills, I also like to engage the students in open-ended design projects where they have to apply their programming skills to solve an authentic problem at our school.

Dylan's website has videos and photographs of the Race Timers through the process of development, testing and finalization.

Dylan’s website has videos and photographs of the Race Timers through the process of development, testing and finalization.

Recently our 5th graders were asked by their PE teacher to build a stopwatch sensor for the outdoor track. They programmed a digital timer and then prototyped their own array of stomp pad like sensors from conductive materials and cardboard – essentially just a big button that you could run over. Students improved their timer programs and track sensor prototypes through a testing and peer critique process as they learned the engineering design cycle. In the end, we identified a “best engineered” track sensor and timer program from different teams, and actually used them in a culminating outdoor games activity on the school track in front of the entire grade.

Having authentic challenges with a whole-school audience is really motivating for the students. They know that their projects have meaning and that they can solve a problem for their school community. This year our 5th grade Science teacher has challenged students to program smart plant pots that use sensors to collect soil data and signal us when they need more water or light.

5. Do you have any tips or suggestions for teachers that are thinking about doing an Hour of Code this year?

Remember that computer programming is a highly engaging, and highly creative activity. The Hour of Code activities that you choose to introduce should be creative too. Step-by-step coding tutorials and puzzles are a fine introduction, but students really shine when they are engaged in more open-ended programming projects where they have room to express themselves. You can see how quickly they lose interest when an activity is too rigid.

When kids have the chance to code something of their own design, they feel very motivated and push themselves to grow as problem solvers and persevere. I find that motivation piece is really important for keeping students engaged, focused and growing as learners.