NFL Players Helping Students Tackle the Challenges of Tomorrow Through Coding

To celebrate Computer Science Education Week (December 4-10), we’ve brought you a series of posts highlighting both the benefits of computer science education and fun ways for teachers of all backgrounds and skill levels to give their students computational thinking skills. In our final entry, we wanted to take a moment to look at a fun event that took place to reflect fondly on the week.

The music boomed. The fourth graders who filled the media center at Plantation Elementary School in Broward County, Florida eagerly sat on the edge of their seats. As if entering the stadium on game day, three Miami Dolphins professional football players ran through the excited crowd, one by one, high-fiving students. The energy was electric. The pep rally atmosphere was in full effect. These young fans were thrilled to meet their real-life heroes.

Once the student applause hushed and the attention focused on listening to the special guests, Alterraun Verner, Michael Thomas, and Jermon Bushrod told these nine- and ten-year-olds about some of their most impressive stats: Jermon Broshud talked about graduating from Towson University with a degree in Sports Management; Michael Thomas spoke about the pride he feels being a Stanford University graduate; and Alterraun Verner told the kids about earning a mathematics degree from UCLA. While these players are known for their game day highlights, it was their accomplishments and hard work off the field they were most eager to share with the kids.

Stars Become Fans

On this recent Tuesday, as part of Computer Science Education Week, these professional athletes traded in their pads and helmets to be Computer Science, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (C-STEM) Ambassadors. They partnered with Athletes for Charity and Broward County Public Schools (BCPS) to get elementary students excited about C-STEM during Computer Science Education Week. After talking with the kids about interesting potential careers in the C-STEM disciplines, and their own experiences studying these subjects, the athletes handed out more than 700 STEM-related books. They then participated in an Hour of Code with fifth grade students, an activity designed to promote awareness of coding, provide opportunities to learn and practice computer programming, and unify young coders around the world. Verner, Thomas, and Bushrod were presented a student coding playbook that included Minecraft, FlappyBird, and the route running robot MIP. These world-class professionals found themselves immersed in a veritable coding training camp.

The players spent a precious day off from preparing for their game plan to help students prepare for their life plan. They were at this elementary school because they wanted to show that they are also fans of these kids, and to cheer them on for their effort and hard work. After reading from a book about inventors to first graders, Verner explained that they, too, could aspire to create things: “All of the amazing things we read about in that book were invented. They came from someone’s mind. Why couldn’t that be you? You can be inventors, too. It just takes imagination and work hard.” They used their platform as professional athletes to help motivate these students to get excited about engaging in C-STEM subjects.

As they spoke, the players connected what the students are doing in elementary school with what is possible in the future. Thomas encouraged the kids, telling them, “You can be the person to create the next great app or program that will change the world. Strive to be great because you can be!” The joyous eyes of kids reflected the affirmation that they were feeling.  During this same week, around the nation, other male and female professional athletes from basketball, tennis, and soccer, professional engineers from NASA, animators from Disney, and strategists from Accenture, joined the Hour of Code effort to promote computer science and coding.

Coding is a Game Changer

Kids today will live in a world surrounded by digital interfaces. Algorithms determine the way these automated systems function, and these algorithms are written in a new kind of common, global language now taught through coding. Understanding computer programming and coding empowers students to comprehend, navigate and contribute in these environments.

Beyond being able to participate in our digitally enhanced communities, computer programming develops the transcendent behaviors of creativity, logic, critical thinking and problem solving–requisite skills to be college- and career-ready in the 21st Century. As Dr. Lisa Milenkovic, Supervisor for STEM and Computer Science for BCPS, explains, “Computer science is a foundational skill that provides students with problem solving through perseverance. Students are learning the strategies necessary to solve the problems of today and gaining skills and foundational knowledge to create the technology that will be needed to solve the challenges of the future.”

And schools are meeting an intellectual hunger that many young people already feel. Research shows that today’s students are interested and eager to learn computer science and coding. The 2016 Speak Up Survey from Project Tomorrow, drawing on responses from over 500,000 students, parents, teachers and administrators nationwide, found that 67% of K-2 students and 61% of Grade 3-5 students are already curious and excited to learn “how to write programs to make computers do things.” Today’s students understand the connection between exposure to coding and their future. More than half of 6th through 8th grade respondents in the Speak Up survey said that knowing how to use technology is vital for their future. For those already involved in coding classes and programs, the number jumps to 60% who see technology skills as key to their career readiness. And once again, the students are correct. Coding is a skillset that is a differentiator in professions as diverse as law, medicine, logistics and advertising.

The students participating in the Hour of Code with the NFL players displayed this exact interest and enthusiasm for computer programming. Brandy, a fifth grade student who used a tablet to program and test the movements of a robot, said she loves that she “understands how to tell the robot what to do and where to go. It’s amazing to choose the action and see it happen.” Tyler, who partnered with her on the project, said he enjoys the challenge of making the robot do progressively more advanced tasks. He said, “I like the challenge of trying to make the robot do difficult things… and when it doesn’t work, we try again… It’s exciting when we finally figure out the correct steps.”

This process involved understanding the challenge, thinking critically about how to approach the problem, and responding with perseverance and resilience when something failed. Successful completion of the tasks required peer collaboration during development, teamwork to implement the plan, and digital literacy skills. These activities are described by students as “fun that feels like playing.” And it is this successful matching of development and joy that is being celebrated from the classroom to the NFL locker room.

Schools and Communities Coming Together Around Coding and Computer Science

This event at Plantation Elementary is a microcosm of a national trend. Schools and communities are coming together to highlight this important work across the country. Brave teachers throughout the K-12 spectrum, with no background in computer science, are enabling their students to know and do far more than they can do themselves. Principals are realizing that the intellectual discipline and excitement generated during time spent coding has a better academic return on investment than more test prep.  And community leaders are supporting these educators and their students.

The prominence of coding/STEM can be seen in the investment of time and resources by institutions of cultural prominence, such as professional sports teams. Professional athletes, artists, entertainers, and philanthropic donors are giving of their time, money, and attention to reward impact and encourage further work. Earlier this month, simultaneously announced that it had reached ten million accounts registered to girls and that it received an award of twelve million dollars from a joint philanthropic effort of the Gates Foundation, PriceWaterHouseCooper and the Indian IT firm Infosys. These efforts show that entire communities support our student scientists, engineers, and mathematicians like they support local sports teams. Tackling problems has never been been so productive.

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Erin Gohl

Erin Gohl is a Getting Smart columnist, and an independent writer focusing on issues of equity, engagement, and technology in educational policy and practice

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