What happens to education when nearly everyone is told to stay at home amid a global pandemic? It’s a question many are grappling with as the COVID-19 coronavirus continues to disrupt the ways we work, live, and learn.
Creating an online course seems like a natural fit for this type of situation, and that’s exactly what Bill Stanard, Manager of Technology for the Community Science department at the Saint Louis Science Center, decided to do.
In April 2020, Bill opened his Python Games course using the web-based platform Repl.it (pronounced like “rep” and “lit”) to offer students a way of learning how to code using the programming language Python.
I recently talked to Bill about the program via a Zoom call, where he told me more about his free online course, his involvement with the Science Center’s Community Science department and the Youth Exploring Science (YES) Program, his approach to hands-on education, and more.
Taking Things Online
Repl.it is an online coding platform that allows anyone with an internet connection to access several fundamental programming tools and pieces of software. Rather than requiring that a programming language be installed on a computer, Repl.it has everything built into their website, making things accessible to just about anyone with a web browser.
Previously, Bill and Michael Harris, Manager of Cyber Security Education for Community Science, had made efforts to teach a Python course at the Taylor Community Science Resource Center, the program’s home base. Their in-person course could hold about 20 teens, but getting everyone set up with computers and going through several steps to get Python installed on each machine made things cumbersome.
That’s one of the reasons why Bill chose the platform: “What Repl.it offers is it’s all right there in one screen, and you can just log in.”
With Repl.it, it’s easy to sign up and get started, and there’s no need to download anything. Bill’s course is broken out into small assignments, and according to him should comprise around 120 lessons by the time he completes things.
To anyone who’s ever signed up for an online coding course from, say, Code Academy, Repl.it might seem familiar. One major difference is that the course structure and written instructions were all put together by Bill himself. Working through the assignments, students read Bill’s directions before practicing in the page’s test coding environment.
While that might sound dry, Bill sprinkles humorous touches of personality that help make the assignments fun and easy to digest. (Watch out for a cheeky Monty Python/Harry Potter reference in the opening assignments, for example.)
Despite Python’s somewhat intimidating name, Bill says it’s one of the easiest to learn—you can almost read it like English, straight through—and a great stepping stone to other coding languages. The course’s early assignments cover basics like building a simple “Hello World” program and then build upon those fundamentals. As the course continues, students get comfortable enough with Python that they’re able to code a variety of computer games like poker, hangman, tic tac toe, and more.
While Bill’s course is perfectly suited for the internet age, it actually has roots in his past as an educator. In his life as a computer science and English teacher down in Miami, he’d assembled a textbook of lessons on how to code with Python.
“It was pretty easy for me to do the ﬁrst, let’s say, 40 lessons because I already had a textbook that I had written that I used as my notes. It was a big Word document,” he says. “I had already put the whole curriculum into chunks for chapters, so that was already done.”
All it took was pulling the lessons from that Word document into Repl.it (and an adjustment here, a tweak there) to get things running.
While the course’s stated goal might be building games, Bill explains that the objective is much more than that. In essence, Bill’s approach to creating programs like his Python course focuses on survival skills.
“The ﬁrst thing that I try to do is make sure that it’s something that is going to help [students] either survive, or get a leg up, or in some way impact them in their lives,“ he says. “We need to give them survival skills. And the survival skills in this day and age are—at least part of them are—STEM-based, science-based.”
Coding, Bill believes, is a fundamental skill that young people will need as the world moves deeper into the 21st Century. And that’s not just his opinion. According to a recent report from Burning Glass Technologies, coding and programming jobs are growing at a rate 12% faster than the market average, with a variety of fields—from engineering and IT to art and design—that value coding experience.
To illustrate his point, Bill uses an analogy many people can relate to. “In any office environment,” he says, “the person who knows how to set up your printer is the hero.”
Switching analogies, he says, “If you go to work for General Motors, General Motors is going to teach you how to work on that assembly line, but you’ve got to at least, when somebody talks about valves or wheels or whatever, you can’t look blank. You’ve got to look as though you know what they’re talking about. You’ve got to know what an assembly line is or else they’re not even going to let you in the door and check to see if you can do [the job].”
The same applies for coding.
“I’ve always thought that kids going into the economy, ones we have now in high school, no matter what area they go into, they’re going to need a little bit of knowledge about coding,” Bill says. “Sooner or later you’re going to be exposed to a computer program of some sort, and if you know a basic language, you’re not going to be so terriﬁed. If somebody talks about an algorithm, you’re going to know what they’re talking about. And one of the ﬁrst things you can do to help somebody get a leg up is to teach them the vocabulary so that they speak tech like a native.”
Bill stresses that students are able to take the critical thinking, problem solving, and tech skills they learn from coding and widely apply them to career preparedness—all the way from job applications to entrepreneurship.
Separated, But Not Disconnected
When asked if this online course was in response to the coronavirus pandemic, Bill answers yes.
Part of the desire to build this course (aside from the stir-craziness of being stuck inside) was to keep connected with the teens who are involved in Community Science’s YES Program, where local teens get hands-on learning experiences across a variety of science topics.
Beyond simply learning how to code, part of Bill’s plan for the Python course is encouraging his YES teens to be an active presence in a help forum he’s established for the course—a place where anyone who’s needing help with an assignment can post their question and get help from either Bill or, as Bill would prefer, other students.
Even in his classes with Community Science, Bill prefers not to lecture; to him, teaching concepts in the abstract makes less of an impression than having students get hands-on experience with subjects. And so, he likes to let students get immersed in things, then step into the role of instructor whenever possible.
According to Bill, you never really learn something until you have to teach it yourself, and his hope is that the forum provides a digital space where students can interact, help one another out, and at the same time fully absorb the concepts in his course.
“A lot of times, what seems perfectly obvious to a student and they can do very easily, when it comes time to explain it to somebody else, [that’s] when they really get to know it,” he says. “Because now they have to verbalize it.”
Connections with the Community
One of the objectives of Community Science is reaching outward to draw in partners and connect with kids who might not otherwise have access or exposure to science. So what better way than a free online course for even more people to join in?
After announcing the course to his network of teachers, YES teens, professional colleagues, and more, Bill hopes to garner as much interest as he can. And a recent posting through the Computer Science Teachers Association has brought in a new batch of sign-ups.
One other promising connection is his course’s inclusion by the Saint Louis Public School district’s Continuous Learning During COVID-19 webpage for middle and high school students. There, perched prominently at the top, is a link to Bill’s course.
Bill credits both his district connections from his time teaching at Compton-Drew Middle School, as well as efforts by Siinya Williams, Senior Director of Community Science, in getting the course on their radar. “Siinya had met with Dr. Beth Bender,” Bill says, “and I think because of their hitting it off they said, ﬁrst of all, it’s legitimate. And secondly, if Siinya is behind it, it obviously is not going to be a ﬂash in the pan.”
Just Getting Started
Bill cautions that going online is not perfect, though.
“I have a problem a little bit with saying that online is the answer to everything,” he says. “I don’t really think it is. I think human contact in the classroom is really, really important—both for the kids who are super students and especially for the kids who are not so motivated. They tend not to do very well in online courses because nobody’s standing over them, which you can do in a real classroom. You can wander over and say, ’Charlie,’ you know, ’ﬁnish the problem.’ ”
Nevertheless, Bill hopes that what he’s able to learn from putting together this course can be applied to others. While Repl.it serves Bill’s Python course well, he notes that it’s best suited for courses that are more text-based, rather than those that emphasize graphics (a Space Invaders-style game, for instance), but he’s investigating other ways that he could potentially dive into other programming languages in an online setting.
For now, Bill has hopes he can get as many people as possible to sign up for his Python course and expose a younger generation to the invaluable language of computers and coding. (As of publication, the course has over 40 students signed up.)
To the community, Python Games is one more way that Bill and the Community Science team show how, even with everyone stuck at home, the Science Center provides a unique and adaptive approach to STEM education. Despite this uncertain new world, circumstance won’t stop them from connecting minds to science, and they’re just getting started.
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