Martha’s Vineyard students spark interest in computer programming

Ellie Hanjian wrote the code to create fun piano. It uses fruit, in this case oranges, as conductors.
Photo by Janet Hefler

Ellie Hanjian wrote the code to create fun piano. It uses fruit, in this case oranges, as conductors.

For many people, creating a computer program is associated with a certain degree of mystique and intimidation. As students at Martha’s Vineyard Regional High School (MVRHS) recently demonstrated, however, computer programming can be fun and doable for anyone.

As part of a nationwide “Hour of Code” campaign, from December 9-13, technology and design teacher Chris Connors and students in his computer science classes hosted visits from students from a variety of other classes and introduced them to the basics of computer programming.

The classes were all part of Computer Science Education Week from December 9-15 launched by Code.org, a nonprofit organization launched by Internet entrepreneurs and investors Ali and Hadi Partovi to encourage more computer science education.

The Hour of Code featured free online tutorials, still available at Code.org, by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Microsoft founder Bill Gates that are designed to get U.S. students interested in computer science, according to a report in the Washington Post. The $1 million Hour of Code project was funded by Microsoft, Linkedin, Google and a number of other corporate sponsors, as well as through donations from Mr. Gates and Mr. Zuckerberg.

“What the people organizing this initiative got right is that young people just need to start with some simple, fun activities that can lead them to explore the ideas at a deeper level,” Mr. Connors said in an email to The Times.

“If young people give code and programming a try, even for a brief while, they just might see that it is a lot of fun to make things work,” he added. “Once people find out that it’s possible to make your own code, then the door is open to try greater challenges and maybe even explore career options.”

The Code.org website notes that software jobs currently outnumber students 3 to 1. And by 2020, there will be 1 million more jobs than students.

On the other side of the glass

On a visit to the computer lab on December 12, some students were taking part in the free tutorials, while others sat with programming students who spoke enthusiastically about what they have learned and demonstrated their projects.

Ellie Hanjian, a ninth-grader, wrote the code and program to create an “Interchangeable Fruit Piano.” It consists of a “keyboard,” with strips of foil representing piano keys, connected to a circuit board. To play it, Ellie placed orange slices on each “key” and held an orange slice in one hand, which was also connected to the circuit board. When she pressed a key, the electric circuit was completed, and the computer played a musical note. Other fruits work, too.

Ellie said she saw the idea on a how-to video and then made her own version, using a basic circuitry kit called Makey Makey, and Scratch, a computer language program.

“This looked very complicated and hard to put together, but it was actually kind of easy,” Ellie said. “Someone off the street could do it. It seems intimidating, but it’s not at all. Once you get into it, it’s a very fluid process.”

Although she has always been drawn to the arts, Ellie said she definitely wants to continue learning about computers.

“I’m finding that computer science can be an artform, too, when you consider that it enables you to do something like this, make a piano out of an orange,” she said.

A few seats away, sophomore Ethan Donavan played the video game “Minecraft,” using a controller he made himself from a Makey Makey kit, which even incorporates the box.

“I get them aware that they can program, and with the tools available now, it makes it very accessible for the kids to jump in,” Mr. Connors said.

Nowadays people frequently interact with web pages, videos, apps, and environments that are controlled by computers and hand-held devices, Mr. Connors noted. And many have a small computer, in the form of a smartphone, in their pockets.

“In my classes, and in my own creative work, it is important that we work with and understand these systems in a way that we control the technology, whether this means designing and 3-D printing objects, writing and playing video games, or creating new computer controllers to customize our experience,” he said. “By becoming creators, I’m encouraging students to bring their ideas out from the other side of the glass computer monitor or phone screen, and unleash the real power of modern technology.”

The computer lab’s 3-D (three-dimensional) printer, which can produce a plastic model from a computer design, draws a lot of interest. As Mr. Connors describes it to his students, “A three-D printer is like watching a fish tank, but you’re making the fish.”

Freshman Kate Sodarsky demonstrated how it works by making a blue plastic ring for one of the visiting students. She said she has enjoyed learning how to combine the new technology with her interest in jewelry-making, and hopes to keep honing her skills. The most difficult piece she’s made so far is a ring with a pattern of perforations. Kate said it took her several tries to get it just right so that the plastic wasn’t too thin and would break.

Spreading enthusiasm

Mr. Connors said he really enjoys having the opportunity to learn and teach about new technology like the 3-D printer, and is still learning himself about its potential applications. For example, he said, earlier that morning he was talking with culinary arts teacher Jack O’Malley, who mentioned that he wished his students had a Martha’s Vineyard-shaped cookie cutter to use. Mr. Connors went back to the computer lab, designed the cookie cutter, produced it on the 3-D printer, and delivered it to Mr. O’Malley by lunchtime.

Mr. Connors also involves his students in some of his own projects. The computer lab is home to two “animatronic” ponies that he built for students to tinker with and learn from. Students named them Robo Pony and Shuneedsa Cupholder (“SC”).

Robo Pony is the skeletal version of “SC,” with an exposed frame and the inner workings and circuitry accessible to work on. Junior Michael Dexter said his goal is to make Robo Pony breathe fire at some point, and he is looking at plans with Mr. Connors to achieve that. “SC” is covered in furry material and appears quite life-like, especially when she bats her eyes, snorts, or makes munching sounds.

The Hour of Code at MVRHS

Mr. Connors said he was glad that Chris Baer, the high school’s art, design, and technology department chairman, suggested that he and his students participate in the Hour of Code. Mr. Baer also took care of the logistics and emailed teachers an invitation to bring their classes to learn about computer programming.

“Students in my classes had an opportunity to share the projects that they have been working on this semester, and several other teachers graciously offered some of their class time to help introduce their students to the ideas behind programming,” Mr. Connors said.

Although attended mostly by math and science classes, the Hour of Code generated a lot of interest and participation by a wide variety of students, Mr. Connors said. By the week’s end, 70 of his students had taken part in hosting 202 students from 16 classes.

“I found it to be a very nice way to welcome many students into my classroom and see their excitement as they saw what fun times my students and I are having, learning to work with emerging technologies,” Mr. Connors said.

According to Code.org, while 57 percent of bachelor’s degrees are earned by women, only 12 percent of computer science degrees are awarded to women. According to Mr. Connors’s numbers, 75 girls participated in the high school’s Hour of Code classes last week, a fact that pleased him.

A conversation with Mr. Connors exemplifies one of the objectives he lists for students in his classes, which is to “spread enthusiasm.” He joined the high school faculty this year, after teaching on the South Shore, mostly in Duxbury.

“I’m very excited about teaching at MVRHS, and having a wonderful time connecting to the Island and the great people here, both in the school and in the community,” he told The Times.

Mr. Connors earned a bachelor of fine arts degrees in art education and photography from UMass Dartmouth and a master’s of education in interdisciplinary studies from Lesley University. He taught art and photography for several years, and then engineering for 15 years, mostly in public high schools.

Mr. Connors also taught teacher training workshops for the Museum of Science in Boston, as a field test teacher of “Engineering the Future” curriculum.