Hour of Code connects computer scientists with young students

By the time most students get to middle school, they are experts at using cell phones and playing video games. But few understand how the technologies work or who writes the programs that make them run.

Changing that is the idea behind Hour of Code, a global campaign that aims to get everyone, kids to adults, to try computer coding for an hour. Supporting such efforts is Argonne National Laboratory, whose Educational Programs Department recently coordinated sending computer scientists from Argonne and Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory and computer science students from the University of Chicago into schools in greater Chicago.

In all, 45 scientists visited 49 schools in December. They met with more than 4,000 students, offering them a taste of coding and a glimpse of possible careers.

“The aim is to connect computer scientists with the student-teacher community and break down barriers,” said Jessica Dietzel, who leads education outreach for Argonne’s Educational Programs Department. “Students get to have an interaction with real scientists who have careers doing work that has so many real-world applications. It allows them to see the scientists as real people, not some unattainable ideal.”

Argonne computer scientist Ken Raffenetti visited New Sullivan Elementary School on Chicago’s far southeast side, talking to a packed room of 10- to 14-year-old students about his work at Argonne. He answered questions and helped the students work on an Hour of Code activity.

“These kids may know doctors and attorneys or entertainers. But they’ve never met scientists,” said Rodney Williams, a New Sullivan teacher who runs a popular before-school coding club and helped organize the event. “A lot of them don’t think of that as a career. They see something on TV—entertainment or sports­—and they think those are the only choices of careers. So to see a scientist and say, ‘I want to be a scientist,’ that’s a great thing.”

“It allows [students] to see the scientists as real people, not some unattainable ideal.”Jessica Dietzel, Argonne education outreach lead

This was Argonne’s second year sending computer scientists to schools for the Hour of Code, while Fermi and the University’s Department of Computer Science participated in the program for the first time. Argonne and Fermi are affiliated laboratories of the University.

The Hour of Code is an annual campaign organized by Code.org, which is dedicated to expanding access to computer science, and increasing participation by women and underrepresented minorities. Its work, including Hour of Code and a series of other programs, has been evaluated by Outlier Research & Evaluation, which is part of UChicago STEM Education.

Participants attended a training session in which they were prepared on what to expect. They also got a template for developing short, kid-friendly presentations about what they do, how it applies to their work and how they got interested in programming and computers.

“Computer science is such a broad field,” Raffenetti said. “I showed them how the code that I write can be taken by other people who do calculations and math on top of it, and that that allows them to do real, interesting scientific experiments and simulations. The things we do at Argonne with simulation, the way we use our main computers—I think that was something they hadn’t seen before.”

At a different Hour of Code group in Orland Park, the seventh- and eighth-graders in Jerling Junior High School were surprised to learn how many fields in which computer scientists work. Until Argonne software engineer Jackie Copple’s presentation, they mainly knew only about website and video game design.

“She talked to them about what a computer scientist does and what kinds of things computer scientists can go into: ‘You want to go into medicine? There are computer scientists working in medicine.’ She gave them that broader picture,” said Judy Stellato, the teacher in charge of the sessions.