TWIN FALLS — At first glance, it looked like Vera C. O’Leary Middle School students were playing online games Wednesday.
But they were actually using a tutorial featuring Disney characters to learn about coding.
More than 930 students at the Twin Falls middle school got an introductory, one-hour coding lesson during their social studies class. It was part of a worldwide “Hour of Code” event during Computer Science Education Week.
Organizers hope to encourage more students — particularly, girls and minority children — to pursue computer science as a career in the future. It’s a highly in-demand career field with high wages.
The coding event helps prepare students for the future, said O’Leary student Elway Myers, 13. “I think the Hour of Code really helps with a lot of jobs.”
The Idaho Department of Labor’s website lists software developers and computer systems as the number one “hot job,” based on 2014-2024 projections.
The number of jobs is expected to grow 37 percent over that decade. And the median annual wage is $82,209.
At O’Leary, computer science teacher Annette McFarlin teaches coding in her media technology class. It’s a skill needed for creating computer software, websites and phone applications.
Eighth-graders from her class — plus a few high schoolers — led lessons Wednesday for the school’s Hour of Code.
Elway was one of the student helpers. He started learning coding in sixth grade and wants to pursue computer science as a career.
Why does he enjoy coding? “I just think it’s fun,” he said.
Other schools in the Twin Falls School District — and a handful of others across the Magic Valley — are also doing coding lessons this week.
It’s the fourth year for the Hour of Code at O’Leary. And last year, McFarlin received a $10,000 grant from Code.org to use to buy new computer hardware.
Idaho — like many other U.S. states — doesn’t require students to take a computer science class.
To help fill the gap, the nonprofit Code.org provides free tutorials with a variety of themes, including Minecraft and Star Wars. Lessons can be accessed from most computing devices and are available in multiple languages.
On Wednesday, O’Leary students dragged and dropped visual blocks to write codes to direct actions of characters from “Moana,” a Disney movie released over Thanksgiving weekend about a girl in ancient Polynesia who goes on an ocean voyage.
The first lesson started out with basic tasks, such as moving a character forward two steps. Students progressed through online lessons at their own pace.
The ability level among students varies drastically.
“There’s kids in sixth grade who could probably write the code,” McFarlin said.
In one seventh-grade social studies class Wednesday, students worked on coding tutorials on laptops.
Throughout the class period, students made comments as they worked, “I’ve almost got it” one said. And another: “I did it. That was easy.”
McFarlin said she wants students to gain coding skills because it’s useful regardless of what career they pursue in the future. “I hope they get hooked on coding.”
If they do, they’ll have the chance to take a new class next school year at O’Leary devoted just to coding.
How is coding used in the “real world” here in Twin Falls? Officials from two major employers — the city and St. Luke’s Health System — say coding or software development isn’t something most employees do regularly in their jobs.
But employees at the city of Twin Falls are assisted by that technology, said Gretchen Scott, a human resource analyst. And “it makes sense that they’re building that skill set in youth,” she said about O’Leary’s coding event.
For city workers, “we’ve seen a real expansion in the kinds of assistance tools that are being developed,” Scott said. That helps with tasks such as tracking inventory and work orders.
Plus, programs contribute to the city’s overall efficiency, ability to gather information and make decisions, she said.
The city’s information technology department has job responsibilities such as conducting training, doing hands-on work with users, and assisting with equipment installation and maintenance.
For the St. Luke’s Health System, “from a technical perspective, we tend to differ from some other industries,” senior recruiter Brian Ray said. “We don’t have a lot of software development.”
But computer science skills are used in other ways, including data analysis and programming.
Another big push for the health system was launching a new system-wide electronic medical records system this fall.
The health system hired 120 short-term trainers to provide in-person lessons for employees on the technological changes, Ray said.
Whether employees work in billing, patient care or another area of the health system, “the trend is more into technological involvement,” he said. “I don’t foresee any way that will slow down.”