Kidcast: Through coding skills, kids learn to think like a computer

Is your child lit by something? Maybe it’s cooking or writing, dinosaurs or trains, drawing or making music.

We’re starting a new series of Kidcasts about things kids love and how we, as parents and caregivers, can help them.  We’re asking the experts what intangible skills kids are learning when they are involved in specific activities and how you can help encourage their passion.

We start with coding. Is your kid lit by coding? Computer coding is something kids can learn in elementary school, but the rewards can be much greater than you even imagine, and there are so many ways kids can learn that skill.

KDKA’s Kristine Sorensen talks with Stu McNeil, manager of STEM programs at the Carnegie Science Center, for info and advice.  Here’s their edited conversation.

Kristine Sorensen: What are some things that kids are learning when they’re coding that isn’t just coding itself?

Stu McNeil: It’s so easy when you talk about coding to focus on some of the obvious things like computer science, math, even some engineering concepts, but generally what we like to focus on are the intangible things. This includes computational thinking or thinking like a computer. It’s thinking about what’s coming next, what can I make this do, and even expanding that out into thinking about cause and effect. It gets a child to think, ‘If I do this, then this will happen’ or ‘Because this happened, I can expect something else to come down the line.’

Kristine Sorensen: What are some things parents do to encourage their children’s passion for coding? 

Stu McNeil: There’s so much! There are little things like getting coding-related toys. One of my favorite toys that I set up in my office is Ozobot robots. You can code them by drawing. They’re actually reading the road that they’re on and steering around and making decisions based on what’s coded into the road in front of them.

Kristine Sorensen: And there are books that can help?

Stu McNeil: Of course. One of my favorites is “Hello Ruby” by Linda Liukas. It’s a great little starter book to get young kids into coding early on, and it’s a fantastic one for girls too.

Kristine Sorensen: Kids can even code online by themselves, right?

Stu McNeil: Absolutely. One of my favorite things that I always recommend is a coding language called Scratch. It is actually developed out of MIT. It’s object-based. If your kids can use LEGOs, then they can do Scratch. You can do anything from make animations to steer a drone with it. It’s amazing.

Kristine Sorensen: And if kids want to learn a lot more, I know you have all kinds of classes and summer camps at the Carnegie Science Center.