Computer Science Education Week at Preston

I’m late blogging about this because our days were so busy with CS Ed Week! I owe a huge debt of gratitude to my partner in crime, Tracey Winey (Twitter: @premediawine) , who listened very nicely when I said “I have some ideas about Computer Science Education Week I’d like to brainstorm with someone”, and she agreed to dive right in and plan a bunch of activities with me. She’s an outstanding organizer and is becoming a darn strong engineer as well, so the world better watch out.

We arranged for teachers to do an Hour of Code with their students over the course of the week, in their regular classes. Many students are doing multiple Hours of Code and they love it. The three activities garnering the most positive feedback from students are the Minecraft Hour of Code on, the Anna and Elsa Hour of Code on, and the BitsBox Hour of Code (which actually lets you download your apps to your mobile device!). I love how the Hour of Code makes coding accessible and fun for every student. Tracey and I wanted to infuse coding into a little bit of a cultural celebration at school. We envision that students should not see coding as a niche activity for a geeky few, but as a normal problem-solving tool that everyone uses.

We set up some open houses in the media center and scheduled students to come to them and take tours. We arranged for current CS and Electronics students to be tour guides and take their friends around different “exhibits” having to do with computer science. Tracey managed the open houses as I had classes to teach during most of them. We had:

Interactive Code, Art, and old Video Games on Monday:

That is PONG, people.

That is PONG, people.

Arduino Day on Tuesday:

Experimenting with a reaction-time game and a pac-man simulator on Arduino.

Experimenting with a reaction-time game and a pac-man simulator on Arduino.

Robot day on Wednesday:

Students love NAO robots and Lego EV3 Robots.

Students love NAO robots and Lego EV3 Robots.

Minecraft day on Thursday:

An Hour of Code with Minecraft Turtles in the lab. Very popular workshop.

An Hour of Code with Minecraft Turtles in the lab. Very popular workshop.

On Friday, we had our first annual Preston Middle School Code-a-Thon. I blogged about how we envisioned it working previously.  We were able to accept almost 80 kids, and it came down to 11 beginner teams and 8 advanced teams. The beginner participants were mostly girls, and the advanced groups were half girls. It was busy but a lot of fun.

We recruited some adult volunteers from the community… some Preston parents who are engineers, along with some engineer friends and retired teachers, and a staff member from the Larimer Humane Society. We had four judges and eight technical mentors, and we divided them up to work with beginners or the advanced teams.

Tracey and I gave a presentation about the code-a-thon. We talked about how code-a-thons are also called hackathons, and they are engines of innovation. Google is famous for its hackathons, and hackathons usually have a theme – Virtual Reality, Rural Life, and Social Services are a few. Sometimes, employees even stay overnight and bring their sleeping bags, and code through the weekend to come up with their solution. Everyone presents at the end. We presented the theme:
Animal Welfare!  The kids were very excited. We showed this quick YouTube clip to get the students thinking about different problems they could solve related to animal welfare.

The kids started by brainstorming, and Tracey set them up all over the media center with SMART boards, regular whiteboards, a SMART table, a Kapp, butcher paper, desktop computers and laptops. The kids had to choose a problem or a need to address, and what language they would code in. I had set up some group accounts on Khan Academy, Open Processing, and Scratch. One group of students chose to use MIT App Inventor, one chose BitsBox, and three groups decided to create coding solutions using the NAO humanoid robot.  We offered snacks every hour, and had the kids turn their programs in using Google Classroom. They worked from 8:15 until 11:15, and then they gave presentations to the judges. We saw programs on animal abuse, factory farming, saving penguins, catching poachers, endangered animals, quite a few perfect-pet quizzes, a vet program, and a robot dog trainer. While the judges were deliberating, our Humane Society volunteer gave a presentation about what they do and how they help animals in the community. Finally, the judges returned and we gave out top-four prizes in each category.

It was awesome. The kids who gave us feedback said they loved coding something that had a purpose to it. That they really enjoyed having a reason for coding, learning and being social and of course having snacks. I heard from a couple of parents of beginners that their kids were so proud of their coding and had so much fun. Many kids asked if we could do it again. We are pretty exhausted – but we probably will!

Here is a link to many of the programs created by students during the code-a-thon.


I hope you like this slideshow of the code-a-thon. We had a great time!

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About dupriestmath

I'm a former software engineer who has taught middle school math and computer science for the past 6 years. I believe every kid has the right to be a thinker. I started this blog to save resources for integrating programming in the Common Core math classroom. I also use it to save my lessons and reflections from teaching budding computer scientists! Coding has transformed how I teach and think. You'll love what it does for you. You should try it.

7 responses to “Computer Science Education Week at Preston”

  1. Chris says :

    Hi. I love the code-a-thon idea. I too teach middle school and I was looking around and can’t find a whole lot of info on how to run one for ms’ers. I was wondering if you could provide more details with how you ran the event. Like, did you use a rubric for judging? How much explanation did you do ahead of time? Just show the video or give more specific details?


  2. dupriestmath says :

    Hi there! I appreciate your commenting and asking questions. I hope this helps.
    – We did use a rubric for judging, and it’s here: The judges used it loosely, and we told them they probably wouldn’t see evidence of all of the items in the rubric. It’s more of a questioning guide to interacting with the kids than it is a grading sheet. If kids were stuck, the rubric would help judges ask questions of the kids so they could get pointed in the right direction.

    – As far as explanation ahead of time… when students signed up for it, we told them: It’s a day to work in teams to solve real world problems with code. We give you a theme, such as “sports” or “oceans” and you have to create something with code that has something to do with the theme. You can use any language you wish. Beginners are of course welcome. There will be snacks. This will be during the school day. You’ll give a presentation to judges and there will be prizes. You should sign up!
    – On the day of, we took attendance and did introductions. We asked the judges to introduce themselves. We talked about what a code-a-thon is and introduced the theme using the video. I explained a few technical details – there was a Google Classroom set up to share the programs, and they could see me for a group account on Scratch, Khan, or Open Processing, or if they needed equipment such as a robot. We talked about the schedule, when we would have snacks, the deadline and briefly touched on how the projects would be scored. We did a quick discussion on teamwork, brainstorming, and norms. Then we split the kids up into beginner and advanced groups and they started to work. Every hour or so, we put snacks on the snack table and invited kids to get something to eat and drink.

    We did not spend a lot of time on the setup and explanation, and this was intentional… did not want to stifle any innovative ideas by boxing them in too much.
    Let me know if you have any other questions!!

    • Chris says :

      Hi, Thanks so much for the detailed reply. It is very helpful. You’ve inspired me to try this at my school. I really like reading about that you do. Thanks again!

    • Chris says :

      hi again. One more q: you had the kids working for 3 hours right? Did that seem like a good amount of time? If you did it again, would you increase, decrease or keep it the same?

      • dupriestmath says :

        I think for this age group it was a good amount of time. There were some groups that didn’t finish, but most were able to make something they were satisfied with in the time we gave them. I didn’t want it to be an epic time commitment for the judges either. If I were to do it again, I would keep it in the ballpark of 3-4 hours, but I think an all-day event would have not been as productive for the beginners.

  3. Chris says :

    Hi. Thanks again for sharing. I have another q: Did you give any kinds of prizes for the winners or just bragging rights? Certificates? Thanks!

    • dupriestmath says :

      Hi again! Sorry it took me a while to reply. We went to Party City and got cheap party favors as prizes, and the kids loved them. We have learned in middle school that you can do events on the cheap and students don’t mind – the prizes were little bags of candy and plastic trophies. We talked about having local businesses donate ice cream gift cards or something for next year, which I think would be nice, but it’s not necessary for kids to feel good about their accomplishment.

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