Code in the Classroom: A look into KCJ’s micro:bit workshop

Sitting in on a Kids Code Jeunesse micro:bit workshop in the classrom.

Katherine Lissitsa
11 January 2019

On Nov. 26, 2018, I walked past students half my height filing into Westboro Academy, an elementary school in Ottawa. Once inside, I came up to the school secretary and said: "I’m volunteering for the coding workshop."

This was my first time in the classroom. Although I work for an organization that has ‘code’ at the centre of its name, I’ve ironically never been near the programming part. This was partially because my duties were limited to communications, but also because I’ve always found coding to be slightly intimidating.

Thankfully, this workshop turned that around.

Andrew, KCJ’s Education Outreach Manager and the lead instructor, and Phil, a software engineer and volunteer, were responsible for delivering a series of coding workshops at Westboro Academy in late November. I was the inexperienced (but determined) helping hand.

We were shown to the Grade 7 classroom and waited as eleven chatty students came in and settled into their seats. First on the docket was an unplugged activity — a computer-free exercise to get the students warmed up.

Andrew drew a five-by-five grid on the whiteboard and asked for volunteers. Two of them, Jonathan and Maya, got the job. Maya was given a piece of paper with an identical grid and was told to turn her back to the whiteboard. Andrew then drew a shape by filling in the squares in the grid. He then asked Jonathan to communicate with Maya clearly enough so that she was able to replicate the drawing on her own grid without seeing it on the whiteboard.

Andrew explained that the point of the activity was to establish clear communication between a sender and a receiver, which mimics the way a user (sender) can program using software or hardware (receiver).

Andrew then pulled out the star of the day: the micro:bit. No bigger than a matchbox, a micro:bit is a small programmable computer with a five-by-five LED grid that can be coded using a block coding website.

It might be small, but the micro:bit presents students with endless coding possibilities. They can program words, icons, animations, music, games and more by playing with the various coding blocks and then see the fruits of their labour light up on the hands-on device.

The micro:bit can also be applied within any educational context, from art to math class, to teach the students about computational thinking. Because it’s interactive, visual and easy to use, the students are drawn to learning about code through the micro:bit and the teachers are eager to keep incorporating it into their curriculums.

Once Andrew introduced the device at Westboro Academy, the students enthusiastically launched into exploring the micro:bit and its website. As I strolled around the room, I would spot keeners already tinkering with the coding blocks.

But before they could go off on their own, the seventh graders had to learn how to code their name into the micro:bit. By combining two coding blocks online, downloading the code to the computer and then transferring it to the micro:bit via a USB connection, students were able to see their name light up on the device. Once the students got it to work, shouts of “woah!” and “cool!” bursted out from all corners of the classroom.

The students then created animations by piecing together a sequence of coding blocks, each with their own pattern. As I continued walking around, Jonathan stopped me and asked if the class could learn how to use the music function.

As Andrew explained how to use the digital keyboard in the program, his voice was quickly drowned out by a symphony of beeps and boops coming out of the computers. The students coded familiar tunes such as Happy Birthday or Jingle Bells, and one student even tried to code Yankee Doodle by referring to her printed music sheet.

After attending 10 workshops, Phillip noticed that elementary school students are consistently excited about code. “They all love it,” he said.

And after participating in three workshops myself, I can also attest to that. In a Grade 5 class at the Carson Grove Elementary School in Ottawa, I could see that every student was excited about experimenting with micro:bits.

At the end of that lesson, the instructor, Lila, asked the students what they learned and 20 hands flashed into the air.

I liked that you can watch what you coded on it, said Jason, one of the students.
I learned that you can do any pattern you want, added Abdul Rahman.
I learned that coding is not just one thing, said Rua.

In it's first 3 months of delivering the micro:bitworkshop, Kids Code Jeunesse has already given 500 of these Code in the Classroom: micro:bit workshops across the country and reached nearly 12,000 students. When we asked teachers if they would continue using the micro:bit with their students, a whole 88% of them said yes.

I thought it was very engaging and moved at a very good pace for the class,” said Jenn, a teacher at the Heloise Lorimer school in Alberta. “The students were excited to learn and I cannot wait to learn with them to bring our skills to the next level, she added.

Elisa, a teacher at the W.O. Mitchell School in Ontario, said that the students came away from the class feeling informed. “Students learned a lot and were more confident coders at the end of the two hours,” she said.

We hope to continue delivering the joy of micro:bits to schools all over Canada and inspiring K-12 educators to keep coding with their students!