SF youngsters learn coding in unique after-school program

Kevin Robinson has something different on his holiday wish list. He hopes that by the start of San Francisco Unified School District's winter break, at least one of the 15 third-grade students in his after-school program will want to pursue software development.

“The idea is just to spark their interest and curiosity and aptitude in computers and computer science and coding,” Robinson said of the software class, which he first introduced to fourth- and fifth-grade students at Daniel Webster Elementary School in October.

The second after-school group started in mid-November, and Robinson spends an hour every Monday and Friday trying to inspire the youngsters to learn coding. His work is part of a unique series of software lessons introduced by the nonprofit After School Enrichment Program that provides activities at three public elementary schools in The City.

Coding is essentially the lifeblood of computers and modern technology, which would be useless without these sets of directions to perform their intended tasks.

Robinson's unique after-school offering was born out of his belief that in technology-centric San Francisco, kids should know how to code before middle school.

“[The kids] know how to use a video game, but do [they] know how a video game actually works?” Robinson said.


On a recent Monday afternoon at Daniel Webster Elementary, the third-grade students gathered in the Potrero Hill school's computer lab at 4:30 p.m. for another lesson in coding. Each plopped down in front of an Apple computer and waited for their teacher, who they call “Mr. Kevin,” to begin the course.

Robinson asked the students what language computers use.

“Like the ones and zeros,” he said. “One, zero, zero, one. One, zero, one. That's how we give [computers] instructions.”

He moved on to a vocabulary lesson.

“What is binary?” he asked. “What is algorithm?”

Nathan Henderson quickly lifted his hand, eager to answer the question.

“It's a list of instructions!” the 8-year-old exclaimed.

Two students were then called upon to stand up in front of the class and demonstrate acting as a robot and a human instructor. The robot was to follow computerlike orders from the human as a way of depicting commands for a machine.

“Does this look familiar?” Robinson asked. “It's like what you do on a screen.”

Such lessons highlighted how Robinson teaches coding to elementary students offline as well as with a computer. Though about half an hour of each class is spent using computers, students also learn coding in other ways such as through vocabulary and verbal discussions.

And the kids get it.

“It's like 'Angry Birds,'” Nathan said of the human-robot exercise.

“These kids have been around computers their whole lives,” Robinson said. “It's about time they know how to use them — instead of just for video games — to design bridges or trains or [for] medicine.”

When the computer portion of the lesson began, there was no question that the third-graders were comfortable with machines. Each one happily opened up the Code.org program on their computers and began designing their own game. Code.org launched in 2013 as a nonprofit that seeks to expand participation in computer science.


Robinson came up with the idea to introduce coding to his after-school program this year, and said he received so much support from parents that he hopes to expand it to the other two elementary schools with the After School Enrichment Program. He also plans to teach it to second-grade students in the spring.

Coding is trickling into at least one other SFUSD elementary school as well. Lee Hsu, who took over as the computer consultant at Clarendon Elementary in October, introduced the software lesson this month to third- through fifth-graders. Those students also participated in the global initiative Hour of Code that urges students to learn coding for an hour from this past week.

“It's not just about computer skills, a lot of it is developing logic,” Hsu said of why elementary students benefit from learning code.

“It would be great if we can have more of our SFUSD kids learning coding at an earlier age,” he added.

Around the world, computer science is gaining traction in classrooms. In the U.K., for instance, coding was added to the national curriculum starting this fall. U.S. schools are slower to adopt the change, but just recently, the school districts encompassing New York, Los Angeles, Chicago, Miami, Las Vegas, Houston and Fort Lauderdale, Fla., announced they would offer introductory computer science in high school or middle school.


In addition to teaching the philosophy of computer science to help students “think conceptually” about how they are impacted by computers, Robinson's lessons include how to be responsible digital citizens, such as what personal information is appropriate to share online.

Recent public-private partnerships between The City and San Francisco-based technology forces have pushed to expand access to technology in public schools. A report this year revealed that less than 3 percent of public-school students in San Francisco are issued personal technology devices to use during instruction.

Additionally, many of the district's classrooms lack basic education technology, 65 percent don't have wireless coverage and just half have projectors.

As part of its technology roadmap outlined in the “Digital District” report, the district wants to equip each classroom with a projector, screen, document camera, printer, modern phone, audio equipment and technology that allows content on a student's device to be displayed on the projector, along with wireless Internet access.

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