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CPS students take on 'Hour of Code'

Some students in Chicago Public Schools started learning a new language today: The language of computers.

CPS students took part in a global event, called the Hour of Code, which gets teenagers, and this year even President Barack Obama, taking a crack at computer coding.

At Wells Community Academy High School in West Town, about 40 teenagers filled the library. Each one of the kids huddled around a computer.

Music Teacher Martha Ciurla kicked things off.

“We’re going to get started,” Ciurla says. “Now remember, all over the world, at this very hour, at this very moment, there are other kids doing the same exact thing; they are also learning to code because it’s a pretty important thing, especially nowadays.”

“Most people can’t go a whole day without using technology,” says Angel Sanchez, a sophomore at Wells. “Everything revolves around technology and so many careers revolve around knowing this stuff.”

Sanchez is hunched over a computer with Traeshaun Norwood, who tells me he already knows he wants to be a video game engineer someday.

“I actually think it’s fun because the career I’m trying to get into now is going to involve a lot of coding,” Norwood says.

Lucky for him, Wells is going to have a new program next year to help him do that.

“We’re going to start a new computer science academy, starting next year, so it’s an entire sequence using the gaming platform,” says Wells Principal Rita Raichoudhuri. “So students are going to learn how to code the program, but using video games. They’re going to create their own video games.”

Raichoudhuri says the program is a series of four courses; the final one’s an Advanced Placement Computer Science class.

And it isn’t just the library that’s filled today. Every student  at Wells is logged on to code.org – trying out different sequences on popular games, like Angry Birds.

For example, if you want to move the bird forward four spaces and then have it turn right, you would drag the block labeled “repeat five times,” change the five to a four and then underneath that, drop the block labeled “move forward”. And then you can give it a test run.

So it’s not exactly the complex coding you might be thinking of.

“What these Hour of Code exercises do, it takes out the complexity of the language itself and it puts everything in a block, sort of what we call pseudo-code,” says Emmanuel San Miguel. “It just shows you how easy it is to pass commands into a computer and see it do something.”

San Miguel is a volunteer and a developer with the company 8th Light downtown. He says he’s entirely self-taught and actually got his degree in marketing.

“If I had the opportunity to try out code before I went in to college, I probably would’ve gone into computer science,” San Miguel says.

For kids not interested in coding or computer science careers, there was still a pretty simple teenage reason for taking on the Hour of Code.

“Whoever gets through the programs first, wins lunch,” Ciurla announced halfway through the hour.

Fifteen minutes later,  sophomores Sanchez and Norwood finished their final problem.  

“Ms. Ciurla! We completed the Hour of Code,” they shouted in unison.

But 45 minutes was not fast enough.

“You guys came in second place, because they finished a minute ago, but I’ll put your names down; if not, I’ll bring you guys donuts on Monday,” Ciurla tells them. “Good job! You guys can start the other one if you want.”

Becky Vevea is a producer and reporter for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation.

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