Karel the Dog's Excellent Coding Road Trip

Karel the Dog's Excellent Coding Road Trip

Jeremy Keeshin

Thirty-six days ago, I packed my laptop, camera, a small bag of clothes, a handful of musical instruments, and a box of thirty Chromebooks (thank you, Google!) into my Honda Accord. I started in San Francisco, and now six-thousand miles later, I have visited twenty-one states and twenty-one schools, and I'm only half way done.

I am one of the co-founders of CodeHS, a site to teach computer science to beginners, with a focus on working with high schools. Hundreds of schools all over the world already use CodeHS to introduce a new computer science program or to supplement an existing program. Classes are run both by computer science teachers as well as non-computer science teachers. These days there is a lot of excitement around education technology and around websites that teach programming. What we've found, however, is that most websites don’t understand how schools work.

We are running an education company--how can I possibly be touring the country right now?

It is easy to sit in San Francisco and build an education product and think we know what education is like around the country. It is a very different thing to spend two months visiting schools around the country and see what schools are actually like--and how a product can work with students and teachers.

Many edtech products fail for a few commons reasons; in many respects teachers are often right to be wary of new and unproven technology. The idea of this road trip is to learn--first hand--what computer science education is across the country so we can make an experience truly enjoyable for both student and teachers.

I have visited some of the nicest schools in the country as well as some of the not-nicest schools in the country. It is very hard to describe the range of technology I've seen. In some schools, each student has their own Macbook Air or Chromebook. In other schools, there are hardly any computers that work. The goal with bringing the Chromebooks on this trip was to have a mobile workshop setup, independent of what any particular school might have. 

Here's how our workshops go: I am usually with a group of 20 to 40 students (and sometimes teachers and admins join the fun), and we get started learning to program with CodeHS. We write one program together then everyone goes off at their own pace.

The way we start learning to code on CodeHS is with Karel the Dog. Karel is a dog that lives in a grid world and only knows four commands: move, turnLeft, putBall, and takeBall. Essentially Karel can move around the grid taking and putting down tennis balls. The analogy that we start with is that learning to program--or giving instructions to a computer--is just like giving commands to a dog.

During our session, I'll go around and answer questions from the class. Before we're done, I'll do a quick question/answer session, and talk more generally about computer science, opportunities in CS, and how it applies to the student. We also usually take a class picture with Karel the Dog at the end.

Everyone loves Karel the Dog. The reason Karel is great is because Karel is fun and everyone can wrap their heads around the idea that there is this dog that listens to commands. This is in stark contrast to many introductions to programming, where the first program makes little sense or is not very interesting.

The feedback has been fantastic. In many of these schools none of the students have ever tried programming. Many don't even know what programming is. By the end of one hour, students are mostly describing this as very fun, and asking if they can keep going afterwards.

The goal of the workshop within the school is to get everyone started learning to program in a fun and accessible way. With teachers, we'll often talk about the best ways to use a blended-learning program in the classroom, and different ways to teach this material. The classic problem in learning to program is that it is often too hard to get started; in our case, you can write your first program on CodeHS in two minutes. Many students walk away saying computer science is "easy"!

I hope at the end of the workshops, the teachers and students are excited about computer science, want to keep learning more, and most importantly, think they can do it!

You can follow Karel around the country at http://karelthedog.com or @KarelTheDog. There are still a lot more cities to visit and a few open workshop dates, so please drop me (Jeremy) a note at jkeesh@codehs.com if you are interested.

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