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Gianforte visits Bozeman school to promote coding lessons

December 4, 2018
In The News

Coding computers might sound daunting to a lot of adults, but to the fourth-graders at Bozeman’s Emily Dickinson School, it’s a cool way to learn while having fun.

Students in teacher Tina Martin’s class practiced Monday using a program called Tinker that let them drag and drop bits of coded instructions into place to make the screen images do their bidding. Kids learned to make cubes spin and blow up on their computer screens, and make monsters to zap and kill.

Nine-year-old Ryder Earle used his coding time to create farm animals that tell jokes. He said he likes it “because you never run out of ideas.”

It was all part of the Hour of Code, an international event designed to introduce millions of students to computer coding, to demystify technology, to show kids that anyone can learn the basics, and to broaden the appeal to more kids, beyond the realm of geeks.

More than 2,000 Bozeman students in 60 classrooms will take at least an hour this week to try coding, Superintendent Rob Watson said.

Montana Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte, who made a fortune creating a successful software company in Bozeman, RightNow Technologies, visited the school to support the Hour of Code.

“I am kind of a geek,” Gianforte told students.

He said he first started computer coding in junior high school and taught himself with an early Radio Shack computer that had a paltry 4 kilobytes of memory, enough for a page or two of text. That led to his first job, coding for a hospital while still in junior high.

“I thought it was just fascinating,” Gianforte said. “That’s why I think the Hour of Code is so fantastic, to increase awareness. There’s a big difference between using a computer and coding a computer, because when you can code, then you become master of the machine.”

He asked the fourth-graders what programs they’d like to create, and one girl said she’d write a safe social media program so moms would let their kids use it.

Martin said she and her students had already discussed how there will be hundreds of thousands of jobs in computer coding, but fewer than 50,000 students will graduate each year with the skills to fill those jobs.

This exercise is also teaching her students how to troubleshoot and problem solve when their programs don’t work right, Martin said. Next week she plans to have them program a game that can test people with concussions.

Martin is one of 16 teachers at Bozeman’s eight elementary schools who received training from Project Lead the Way, a national educational nonprofit that promotes STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education. The 16 teachers are starting to train other teachers at their schools how to use STEM lessons.

Teachers love it because students become so engaged, Martin said, and teachers know kids will benefit.

Watson and Bozeman School Board trustees have made STEM education one of their priorities but had no extra funds for teacher training. So Watson asked the Bozeman Schools Foundation to raise $350,000 for the effort from businesses and private donors.

Asked whether the federal or state governments should provide money for STEM education, Gianforte said most school funding is local and federal funds often come with strings attached.

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