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Many countries have paid increased attention to the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM). Several countries have also raised the flag about potential shortages in STEM professionals [1]. In the past decades, computer science (CS) has driven innovation in all STEM fields. Computing has become a fundamental part of our daily life and almost every occupation in the modern economy. However, limited K-12 CS programs are implemented worldwide. In the US, only about 35% of public high schools teach CS [2]. State and local school districts are now aggressively adopting CS policies [3]. In UAE, a K-12 CS standard was published in 2015 and the Emirati School Model was announced in 2017 to recognize coding and computer skills as one required skill for any kid to succeed in life [4].

While the CS policy and implementation help address a lack of access to CS, a lack of engagement to CS or programming/coding could also be problematic. CS is traditionally viewed as being boring [5]. Advocacy Coalition also recognizes that establishing these policies does not guarantee student success. Great teachers and leaders, as well as access to the devices and network, are also needed [6]. It is important to change K-12 students’ views about computer programming, and at the same time motivate and engage them to start learning text coding, as well as necessary computer management and knowledge.

Many companies/institutes have developed graphic programming products such as Scratch, invented by Massachusetts Institute of Technology, so that children could have fun while learning “computational thinking” at an early age. However, to move students into more serious programming or a CS track, text-coding skills are necessary. Text coding is the basic skill of most professional programming and is believed to require a high degree of rigor. Usually it is not common to teach coding until high school, and often only for students who express an interest in pursuing computer programming as a career or option in higher education.

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This article aims to provide empirical evidence about how middle school students were capable and enjoyed text coding, specifically HTML/CSS and some JavaScript coding, as well as providing an example how to integrate both hard and soft skills [7]. This evidence is based on three years of teaching at a well-established American school in the Middle East. In total, approximately 200 students took the class. The student engagement rate was more than 95% regardless of gender. Student gender ratio was close to one to one.

At least three positive learning phenomena were observed. Firstly, all students appeared to be very comfortable in taking online courses (CodeCademy in this case), although there was a wide range of learning speeds. The classroom formed an ideal learning environment, quiet but mentally stimulating. Students asked for help whenever they had a problem, and with a teacher at hand, students enjoyed a personalized learning experience. The teacher provided short lessons whenever needed to address common mistakes. Because of the wide range of learning speed, setting deadlines to accomplish each stage of lessons was mainly for students who had a slower pace or a passive learning habit. Students with a normal to speedy learning pace, were encouraged to accomplish required and advanced mini-projects/problems so that they could apply learning to the final project in depth (i.e., write codes for their designed website). Secondly, students were fascinated to learn how to build a website from nothing. They were amazed to see the change when they played around with CSS commands in designing the layout, color pattern, text font, etc. They were encouraged to ask questions about features they liked in other websites such as how to have music played when the website is launched. And then when they found out, how they could have  such features incorporated into their projects. During these “research” and “self-learning” processes, the third positive phenomenon became evident. The students were happy to share and exchange their findings. Students also enjoyed presenting their websites and talking about their respective learning adventures. The 21st century soft skills in communication & collaboration, critical thinking & problem solving, are naturally blended in. These positive phenomena significantly contributed to the high successful learning rate of this course.

In terms of course content and technical hard skills, HTML/CSS languages are relatively easy to understand compared to JavaScript for most of grade 7 and 8 students. This helped build up student’s confidence in text coding and motivation in engaging the course before JavaScript was introduced. However, students were weak in two aspects: computer and network knowledge and concept understanding through on-line learning. Firstly, students did not understand many basic Internet and computer management skills. For example, they did not know the difference between Internet and their own laptop environments. They are used to the fact that Google saves everything, and they lacked the habit of saving their works while using other software. They did not understand the nature of file structure, type, size, and storage location. They applied single method to transfer file regardless the file size, which affected the transferring speed. They often looked for missing pictures/photos when they ran their code the second time because they trashed the files after their first successful execution of the code/program and thought “somebody” would remember that. Secondly, students were able to pass the tasks/quiz in CodeCademy for each learning concept. However, that didn’t mean they fully understood the concept. This phenomenon was significant when learning JavaScript, where common computer programming concepts like variables, loops, conditionals, and computing were introduced. Therefore, the teacher needed to write up specially designed questions or tasks to test their understanding. A follow up lecture was needed to help clarify students’ confusion or misunderstanding.

Clearly, making the course relevant to students is the key to make students successful, while learning necessary skills along the way. A case study, example at Georgia Tech, has shown the impact when the same course was redesigned to become relevant to students. Georgia Tech required all students in Liberal Arts, Architecture, and Business majors to take a CS course [8]. They created a new course called Media Computation by having students to manipulate digital media as a way to learn loops, conditionals, and computing. Students not only produced creative art works in their Media Computation course, but also passed this Media Computation course in significantly higher numbers (85%), improved from below 50% in the former CS course. It is hoped that similar levels will be observed at the K-12 education.

In conclusion, inviting students to start learning text coding is recommended and students could start as early as 7th grade. During the process, students should not only learn text coding but also learn necessary computer and networking knowledge and management skills. In addition, students should have chances to practice 21st-century soft skills such as communication/collaboration and critical thinking/problem-solving. Online learning is natural for this digital generation. However, a student’s understanding of the concepts may not be accurately assessed by online tasks/quizzes, so a teacher’s attention is required. Finally, tasks and projects need to be relevant to students to promote their successful learning and a high level of engagement. This approach encourages students to switch from being passive to active learners, who take charge of their own learning, collaboration, participation, discovery, reasoning and creativity. 

By: Hsing-Wen Wang

Hsing-Wen Wang received her PhD in biomedical engineering from Case Western Reserve University. She has taught and conducted medical research at the University of Pennsylvania, National Yang-Ming University (Taipei), and University of Maryland (2006-2015). Since 2015, she is an independent consultant/researcher and teaches technology in American Community School of Abu Dhabi.