By end of this school year, freshmen at Highlands High School will have learned the basics of computer coding. A new program called CodeHS introduced this year aims to make these ninth graders fluent in programming.
"It is like another language," said Chelsea Cook, the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) magnet coordinator at Highlands. "It’s like learning how to read and wright, we’re learning how to code and program."
Cook said it's learning a new way to communicate with a computer.
The goal of CodeHS, which was created by two Stanford graduates, is to make coding easy and understandable to high school students. The first few lessons involve a dog named Karel.
Karel lives in a grid world where commands must be typed in to get her to complete tasks.
"It starts out very, very simple where your first program is just getting the dog to move," said Zach Galant, one of the company's co-founders, "and once you’ve done that it gets a little bit more complicated and it can ask questions about the world."
It was first released to the public early last year and already has 30,000 users nationwide. Highlands is the second largest school to use the program.
Highlands has a growing STEM magnet program and originally CodeHS was going to be reserved for the couple hundred students enrolled, but Principal Lorna Klokkenga wanted all students to experience it.
"We opened it up to all the ninth graders in hopes that more would be drawn into the engineering and technology fields," Klokkenga said. "So that we could funnel them into the magnet their tenth, eleventh, and twelfth grade years. We’re also looking at offering some Linux programming, a lot more robotics and computer programming."
For the students themselves who use computer software on a daily basis, it’s like going under the hood of the car to see exactly how it runs. Brandon Trueblood and Tyler Vega are both new students to Highlands.
"Ever since I was little I’ve been playing video games and I’ve always been fascinated by it," Trueblood said.
"Every ninth grader here at Highlands is going to be involved in the program and it’s going to help you get more of an understanding of technology because everything seems to be technology these days and it’s going to be more advanced in the future," Vega said.
Even if the students end up not pursuing coding and technical careers, SAISD is confident the logic that is learned will be a great benefit.
"Because it’s interactive and it requires you to take critical thinking action steps as part of programming, you’re incorporating math, you're incorporating science," said Emilio Castro, SAISD deputy superintendent of learning and teaching.
Galant agreed, and said that’s the whole idea behind the program.
"Learning how to code is about learning how to think, learning how to problem solve, learning to how break problems down in a totally different way," he said.
CodeHS is a for-profit company and is available nationwide. The 80/20 Foundation, the private charity of Rackspace founder Graham Weston, footed the bill for Highlands students.
80/20 Foundation Executive Director Lorenzo Gomez said the foundation wants to encourage students to jump into the technological age.
"We want to create a culture to where it’s not only okay to program, it’s cool," said Gomez. "You know what’s cool? Getting a job."
Gomez said with the right talent, major companies will be attracted to the Alamo city.
“We actually think that the city that produce talent is going to be the one that wins. So if we could, as a city, be producing the programmers and developers of the future, then the Facebooks and the Amazons of the world will move here and not have our people move there."
Anyone can access CodeHS with a monthly subscription fee, which means students of all ages have the opportunity to learn this new skill.
"Normally people think of computer programmers as these guys who stay in their basement all night and drink mountain dew and work on these programs," Cook said. "It’s not like that at all, it’s not that complicated. Everybody can learn how to code and this program really breaks it down."