Students at Beethoven Street Elementary School are learning to program computers — starting as early as kindergarten

By Gary Walker

Josh Taylor (left) and Ryan Baber of 9 Dots help students with a coding exercise. Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

Josh Taylor (left) and Ryan Baber of 9 Dots help students with a coding exercise.
Photo by Jorge M. Vargas Jr.

The students’ tiny fingers navigate the keys of laptop computers as they try to make a digital frog jump with varying degrees of success. It’s the last week of school and they’re eager to try something new before summer vacation begins.

These students at Beethoven Street Elementary School in Mar Vista are playing a computer game, but in the process they are learning a skill that economists say may be crucial for their future: computer programming.

Beethoven is only the second public school in the Los Angeles Unified School District and the first on the Westside where children are learning how to code at the elementary level.

9 Dots, a Hollywood nonprofit that develops science and technology projects for students, has been advising Beethoven instructors since last year on how to implement coding into their curriculum.

“In the tech and engineering community, we saw that there were many communities that were underrepresented in tech fields due to the lack of early access to STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics] programs. We decided to start working with elementary schools with after-school programs first, and then we decided that we wanted to take a coding focus, so we started working with LAUSD  schools last year,” said Josh Taylor, a computer science engineer and executive director of 9 Dots.

LAUSD Board member Steve Zimmer contacted Taylor and connected him with Beethoven Principal Althea Ford in 2013.

Students in third, fourth and fifth grade received lessons on coding this year, and 9 Dots plans to pass the reins to their teachers in August.

Kindergartners, first graders and second graders will begin to learn computer programming next year, albeit on a more limited basis.

On a recent visit to Beethoven, 22 second and third graders paid rapt attention as Ryan Baber, the director of Beethoven’s “Get Coding” initiative, took them through an exercise in which students employed previously learned functions in order to move digital frogs from one lily pad to another.

The students are learning Java script because it is compatible with most if not all computers, said Baber, who also works with 9 Dots.

Their regular teacher, Cordy Arthur, has seen the students grow more confident since they began learning how to code in January.

“I’ve noticed that they’re more willing to take certain kinds of risks — good risks — as they test their theories and ideas on how to find the answer. The kinds of questions that are being asked can be very complex and very confusing, so sometimes you have to take a risk and try to guess the answer,” Arthur said.

First grade teacher Angie Evans already has a variety of ideas for her students when school starts again in August. She plans to use games as well as interactive play that doesn’t always involve computers as a foundation for future coding activities.

One would be similar to the older class that moved the frogs, but the first graders would use pictures of animals and learn to move them manually using the same coding concepts.

“When they’re four to six years old, it’s a lot easier for them to see and understand concepts that are concrete,” Evans said.

Both Evans and Arthur see coding as an activity to help build critical thinking skills.

“I don’t think the way that we were going about critical thinking was always effective,” Evans said. “A lot of what they’re learning is through trial and error. [Coding] is a very active way of learning.”

Taylor says that training students to code helps to prepare them for high-wage jobs.

“That’s especially true in computer science. There’s a shortage of computer science majors right now, so there’s huge opportunity for someone with that kind of background to come in and have access to amazing high-paying and creative jobs,” he said.

Students aren’t the only ones that are looking forward to more coding fun next year.

“I’m excited. Coding is a lot more engaging than just teaching addition and subtraction,” Evans said.