Should Utah require computer coding before graduation?
National ''Hour of Code'' exposes kids to the high-tech fun; should schools require more?
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When teacher Ed Mondragon saw his student playing a game on a phone during class he did what came naturally — he praised him.

That's because the Hillcrest High student wrote the game himself using computer coding skills.

"We're just trying to get kids interested," Mondragon said. "It's really about giving them a chance to see programming is not as difficult as it used to be."

More than a dozen Utah schools joined this week's national Computer Science Education Week Hour of Code event, a one-hour introduction to computer programming. And with state education leaders re-examining how Utah schools teach technology and what students must learn to graduate, more — or even most — Utah schools could start teaching the skill.

So far, initial recommendations to state leaders include teaching kids about computers earlier and moving the currently required computer technology class to middle school.

At least one task force is pushing to also require Utah teens to take another, more advanced computer class to graduate. A different work group prefers additional high school social studies requirements.

Now, about one-third of Utah high schools teach computer programming or computer science, said Carl Lyman, an information technology education specialist at the state Office of Education.

About 20 Utah schools are also now teaching a new ninth-grade elective called Exploring Computer Science, and state leaders hope to see that number expand to 50 next school year.

Advocates of requiring more advanced computer instruction in Utah schools, such as classes that could include coding, say those skills are becoming increasingly important.

"It's a scientific process. It's a mathematical process. It's [a] literacy process," said Sydnee Dickson, director of teaching and learning at the state office. "Every profession involves some type of coding."

Mondragon said coding, which is essentially computer programming, is both creative and logical. In coding, there may be multiple ways to reach multiple solutions, but kids still have to use logic.

"It forces them to think differently," said Mondragon, who's been teaching computers for more than two decades,

To celebrate Hour of Code this week, he invited computer programmers and others to talk to students at Hillcrest.

Other schools also hosted activities and programs. The Wasatch Institute of Technology charter school, slated to open in South Jordan next year, invited about 40 companies to the Adobe building in Lehi to teach kids about coding and computer science.

Freedom Elementary in Highland taught kids as young as age 5 about coding by playing a game in which they used cards with directions to move adults around a classroom.

"We all use [computers] without knowing about coding, but the interesting thing about learning the basics of coding is it's the basics of thinking logically," said Canda Mortensen, Freedom assistant principal.

"Coding is kind of the vehicle," Mortensen said, "but what we really want them to think about is, 'If you say this one thing, does it get you what you need?' "

At Hillcrest High, junior Ruby Straaten practiced coding at a computer, essentially playing a more advanced version of the game the Freedom kindergartners played earlier in the week. She attempted to move an Angry Bird through a maze by giving it a series of directions, but could only use so many directions to do it.

"It's just like learning a new language," said Straaten, who hopes to go into the field.

Next to her, freshman Mary Evans tried her hand at coding for the first time.

"It's really so much easier than I thought it was," Evans said. "It's kind of amazing more people don't know about this."

Evans said she'd like to see more advanced computer classes required of Utah students. Others, including Straaten, would rather see such classes kept as electives, saying students should be allowed to follow their own interests when choosing courses.

State education leaders are now sharing all the recommendations with school districts and others, looking for feedback before they start making decisions about changing graduation requirements. —

Learn to code

To learn more about computer coding and try your hand at coding activities go to http://csedweek.org/learn.