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Code is hot at Hazelbrook Middle School

Oregon Institute of Technology partnership brings computer science know-how to classroom.

This story has been updated from its original version.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Sixth-grader Parker Johnson listens as Oregon Tech student Huy Le offers his help during a coding class at Hazelbrook Middle School.On Mondays and Wednesdays, 20 students at Hazelbrook Middle School take their seats in Rhiannon Boettcher's science room after class for some extended learning.

Hazelbrook is offering an after-school workshop on computer coding this spring, in partnership with the Oregon Institute of Technology in Wilsonville.

Boettcher and Oregon Tech professor Kris Rosenberg oversee the twice-weekly classes, but the instruction is actually led by undergraduate students from the college.

“Really, the idea was to make computer science and computing fun,” Rosenberg said.

'This is such a formative time'

Rosenberg knows that getting more local middle-schoolers interested in computer science helps fill the pipeline for his college, which specializes in tech-related fields. But he also sees a need for skilled workers at high-tech businesses, many of them in Oregon.

“I wanted to really be able to bring this stuff to a younger audience,” he said. “It's really important in the long term for the state's economic health to have people who are going to be good at this.”

Many of the students in Hazelbrook's coding workshop are sixth-graders, Boettcher said. But even though they are years away from deciding where to go to college or whatever else they want to do after they graduate, she and Rosenberg said they have an opportunity to reach them now while they are still young.

“This is such a formative time as far as when students decide what they want to do, and what is exciting to them,” Rosenberg said. “And so to start at the middle school level, to get them interested and excited about it, that helps set their path to understanding the math, science, technology classes. These are important, and something that they should pursue through high school. Like I said, really the goal is to show that this stuff is cool, that this is really fun.”

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Kris Rosenberg, Oregon Tech program director, and Rhiannon Boettcher, a science teacher at Hazelbrook Middle School, have partnered on an after-school coding class.

It's also important to Boettcher that girls not feel like computer science, historically a male-dominated field, is something that is off-limits to them.

“There's something about having college students working with kids at this age that really gets them excited about this material,” Boettcher said. “And additionally, kids this age are forming an identity. They are seeing things in media. And it is helpful that we have Mary (McEntee) here … that we have women who are also modeling that it is OK for girls to be coding as well. And so when these kids are trying to form their identity, sometimes it's hard to break out of that, especially in middle school. But this is a really formative time in that sense as well.”

McEntee, an Oregon Tech junior, said when Rosenberg sent out an email asking his students if they would be interested in teaching coding concepts to middle school students, she was on board. So were fellow Oregon Tech students Josh Barott, Huy Le and Zoe Winter.

“If someone had approached me in middle school and told me I could do all this cool stuff, I would be able to do much greater things than what I'm doing right now,” said McEntee, who just got into computer coding about two years ago. She added, “Even just a fundamental understanding of the basics will make it so much easier, because these things are coming up in everyday life, and being able to understand where something is going is going to be able to change their futures, I guess — where they go.”

Right now, the middle-schoolers are learning JavaScript, a basic coding language that can be used to build websites. As McEntee suggested, the idea is to start with something simple but impart concepts and ways of thinking that can be applied to more complex coding work as students progress, Boettcher and Rosenberg said.

Eighth-grader Emily Whitaker said she wants to learn how to code games, which is the pathway Entee is on.

“I just find coding really interesting,” she said.

College students have 'taken ownership'

Emily saw the workshop was available on a list of after-school activities and decided to give it a try. She said the college students have done a good job teaching the material.

“It's definitely nice to have someone who is also learning more complex stuff that probably knows a lot more about the simpler stuff help,” she said.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Seventh-grader Ray Garcia Morales writes code during a coding class at Hazelbrook Middle School.

Rosenberg said his students who are leading the workshop are doing it on an all-volunteer basis. They receive no academic credit or pay, he said. He expressed pride in how they have taken to their roles as instructors.

“We connected, we came up with this idea, but the actual implementation of it really has been the students,” Rosenberg said. “I gave them some basic guidelines and said, 'Here's kind of the curriculum idea I want you to follow,' but the specific activities, what they're doing, how they're doing it — they're coming up with it. … They've taken ownership of it and are coming up with new ideas for how to make this fun and interesting.”

“It's only been three weeks, and we're still testing things out with them,” McEntee said. “We tried several activities and several different things. … But so far, (reception) has been positive.”

Oregon Tech also works with Tualatin High School to provide dual-credit courses for students there, Rosenberg said.

“We need to be involved at all levels of education in getting people interested and excited and studying this type of program,” he said. “It's not just about filling our enrollment eventually. … Our role as a public state university is to help support the state and help support the economy, and this is an important industry for the state of Oregon. And being able to start as early as possible and provide those resources, that's a thing that's important to me. As a higher-ed institution, we should be supporting our K-12 partners, and giving them resources, and helping them build the students that we need to be able to build them into the professionals that we want them to be.”

The after-school coding workshop started just three weeks ago, and its enrollment is capped at 20, but Boettcher is already thinking about ways to expand it.

“In the future, we may want to consider doing an advanced coding (workshop),” Boettcher said, adding, “Perhaps in the future, we can do coding in the fall, and then do advanced coding in the spring.”

Rosenberg pledged Oregon Tech's support for any future endeavors. He also had warm words for the Tigard-Tualatin School District, Hazelbrook and Boettcher.

“There is no better partner than Hazelbrook,” he said.

TIMES PHOTO: JAIME VALDEZ - Students at Hazelbrook Middle School use computers to write code in a coding class held at the school.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to include the names of all four Oregon Institute of Technology students who are volunteering as instructors for the after-school coding activity at Hazelbrook Middle School.

By Mark Miller
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