A Morning of Code

Students joined their morning Zoom session, settling into their chairs and facing their computer screens. “Good morning,” greeted Middle School Technology Department Head Trude Goodman. “We have a special visitor today!”

Students quickly discovered a new but familiar face in one of the many Zoom boxes. “Hi everyone,” said the visitor, waving from her screen.

The additional class member was Michelle Gelbs, a Biomedical Engineering PhD candidate, a Chapin Robotics coach and mentor who has even taught an Upper School FOCUS course. Today, she joined the sixth grade Tech and Design class as a coding expert, to offer insight and advice.

Ms. Gelbs began by sharing some of her own impressive projects, where she used some of the same coding platforms that the sixth-grade scholars were in the process of learning. Though she touched on other programming options, Ms. Goodman mentioned, “There’s some overlap. When you learn one coding language, you’ll be able to see similarities.”

The students were tasked with learning JavaScript, a high-level programming language, using CodeHS; an interactive online platform. “This tool is geared toward Middle School students and is perfect for distance learning,” commented Ms. Goodman, sharing that she was able to obtain the advanced version for free, due to the pandemic. She referred to it as a “sandbox program,” where students could ‘play’ with various lessons, move at their own pace and create their own challenges to practice with.

After Ms. Gelbs’ noteworthy presentation, the floor was opened up to students to ask questions. “What happens if you get just one line wrong?” one questioned.

“As you’re writing code, you should test each section to make sure you’re outputting exactly what you want,” Ms. Gelbs explained, noting that something as simple as missing a capital letter could cause an error. “Save constantly,” she emphasized.

Ms. Goodman inquired about when Ms. Gelbs first got started in coding, what drew her to the process and what challenges she faced. “It’s very difficult to learn,” she began. “There are not too many open sources to learn from, but I became highly specialized when I was in college.” She noted that having these opportunities at a young age is very unique.

A student then asked about her experience of being a woman in her field. “I’ve lucked out that Biomedical Engineering has a larger population of women – about 30-50 percent – but sometimes I’m one of only two girls. But it will help you stand out!” She went on to detail that there has been a higher trend of women in STEAM fields in recent years. “Don’t let anybody not take you seriously because you’re a woman,” she stressed.

To conclude, Ms. Goodman asked Ms. Gelbs to share any advice she had for aspiring Middle School coders. “Stick to the programs you’re learning now. They will definitely be useful in the future, especially if this is something you want to pursue. Most importantly, if you find something that you like now, keep at it if it makes you happy!”

After generous thanks from the students, Ms. Gelbs bid farewell. Ms. Goodman then demonstrated several tips and tricks on CodeHS that students could benefit from.

As they continued through the end of the year, the young programmers who conquered JavaScript look forward to further enhancing their studies by tackling another complex coding language: Python. In addition, they participated in a brief design thinking unit, where the design challenges were based on real-life questions that are being asked, regarding new precautions for being back in the building such as: ‘What will going to the nurse look like?’ ‘How do we eat safely?’ and ‘How will teams practice?’

Ms. Goodman commented, “I hope they are inspired to practice and learn more over the summer!” She plans to offer a similar summer course for the rising Class 5 and 6 students, with hopes to further ignite passion for STEAM fields.

Note: The thumbnail photo above is of a Class 6 student from Winter 2019.