In a Moench Hall computer lab, an animated group of elementary children on Tuesday raced little robot buggies using remote-controls they had programmed as part of a Connecting with Code computer camp at Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology.
Those operating the controls had to try to direct the buggies over an “obstacle” course of three Post-it notes placed on the floor. Sisters Emma and Claire Foster were the first student team to complete the course.
“I like to program,” said Claire, who is 8 years old and attends Lost Creek Elementary. “It’s so much fun.” She especially enjoys creating games that can be shared with others.
While the morning camp is for elementary-aged children, Emma — a middle school student — decided to join her sister and brother in the earlier session. She attended because “I want to be a biomedical engineer … and I need to know how to code.”
Camp organizers are happy to see more girls attending the camps. Computer science is a good-paying field in great demand, but it is also heavily dominated by males, said Dave Fisher, Rose-Hulman associate professor of computer science. He and Dave Mutchler oversee the coding, or programming, camp.
This is the second week for the Connecting with Code camp, and there are plenty of spots remaining for next week’s session. Morning sessions are for those entering first through fifth grades, while afternoon sessions are for those entering sixth through eighth-grades.
“We’d love to have people join us,” Fisher said. The cost is $150 per week; faculty are volunteering their time, which helps keep costs down.
The goal of the camp is to get elementary and middle school-aged children interested in software development and computer programming.
This week, the elementary students are doing hands-on learning with the Micro:bit, a tiny programmable computer about half the size of a credit card. On Tuesday, they programmed the micro:bits, which served as remote controls to operate the little buggies.
This week, they’re also working with LEDs, breadboards and little hand-held game controllers. “There are a lot of neat accessories,” Fisher said. Students also are learning about teamwork.
One of the participants, Henry Elliott, demonstrated his team’s work on an LED animation, called “nuke-splosion.” It included text, numbers and images, with a face that starts talking [no sound, though]; a countdown using numbers; the word “boom” and a mushroom cloud.
Elliott attended coding camp last year as well. “I like learning new things about coding. My favorite type of coding is Scratch [a programming language for kids], and so far I’ve made two games from Scratch and I’m making my third one right now.”
Children can start coding at “virtually any age,” Fisher said. “It’s really kind of funny. We teach kids to read at a young age. We teach kids math at a young age. But programming, many people don’t start until college, which is crazy.” That’s too late, he said.
Coding is a good skill to have that can help people in many ways, he said. “It helps you think through a problem” and break it down into steps; it improves math skills.
And of course, there are the plentiful jobs.
Prior to the buggy race, Elliott and his team members, Ethan He and Christopher Park, worked on programming to operate their buggy. “It’s working!” Ethan He shouted at one point. He’s a student at Dixie Bee Elementary.
Park, a St. Patrick’s student, described coding as “really fun, but it can be irritating sometimes if you make a small mistake. You need to be really careful.”