Every year, Hour of Code begins with new projects to highlight how fun and relevant coding can be. Previous years have connected with geek/pop-culture references like Star Wars and Moana. However, ‘relevancy’ has taken a new twist. This year, many Hour of Code activities look to contemporary social issues, bringing a practical edge to what has previously been a bit of educational fun. In a world where Greta Thunberg is Time’s Person of the Year, and the Oxford Dictionary’s Word of 2019 is “climate emergency”, one of the most popular Hour of Code activities is a Minecraft: Education project about Forest Fires. And I think this is EXACTLY the type of coding projects we need to give our kids right now.
What is Hour of Code?
‘Hour of Code’ started as an introductory initiative encouraging kids to try coding, as part of ‘Computer Science Education Week’. The core of its message has always been to start with a one-hour project and learn the basics from there.
Over the years, it has grown into a movement, showcasing the immense diversity within computer science and coding. From core logic skills to information management and cybersecurity; computer science is a vast learning area of opportunity.
The Hour of Code program can take place any time of year, however, many schools all around the world choose to explore coding during ‘Computer Science Education Week’–December 9 to 15 this year. You may have heard your kids talking about it already. To support the program, there are a large number of activities available on the Hour of Code website. They include Scratch, Tinker, Codestars, and many others. They all have very easy instructions and plenty of information to guide you.
As mentioned previously, most of the activities are aimed at kids and are made relevant to them. And yet, for the first time since I started following Hour of Code many years ago, there is a shift in the activities on offer. Almost a quarter of the activities offered relate to current social issues, and primarily environmental issues.
Minecraft is Lit with Forest Fires
My favorite Hour of Code activity for 2019 is ‘Minecraft: Education Edition’ and its program relating to Forest Fires. It is not my favorite because of the graphics or storyline or tasks. It is my favorite because it takes a real-life situation and directly shows kids how coding can have a practical application. When you show kids how their education applies in the real world, you are empowering them to make a difference in their future.
Full disclosure: I live in Sydney, Australia. Currently, we are in the middle of the worst bushfire season in history. Over 2.7million ha / 6.6million acres has burned since Sept 2019–and still more is burning. It is a result of our extended drought and mismanaged resources from government officials and climate crisis deniers. As I write this, there is a “Mega-Fire” burning just north of Sydney. Firefighters (affectionately called “Firies”) are working non-stop to prevent the fires from taking anymore lives and homes; many of them are volunteers who have tried to warn officials of this exact risk for a long time. The smoke from the bushfires has blanketed much of the State of New South Wales (a state 16% larger than Texas), including Sydney. On Tuesday, December 10, Sydney had an Air Quality Index rating of 2400+; worse than any other city in the world on that day. Usually, the ‘Hazardous’ rating kicks in at 200.
The bushfires are not limited to NSW; they are extending across Queensland, Victoria, South Australia, Western Australia. Smoke covered our nation’s capital, Canberra. Our hospitals are filled with people suffering from respiratory problems. Our wharves are striking from work because it is not safe nor healthy for them do so. Ferries across the Harbour have stopped work. Our kids are kept inside at school, away from the toxic air.
Good thing Hour of Code started this week. It gave the kids something to do during their lunch breaks, distracting them from the smoke and fire warnings.
That was, until they opened the Minecraft: Education activity and were immediately faced with the task of preventing the spread of a nearby forest fire.
In all fairness, the kids in my son’s Year 5 class embraced this activity with enthusiasm. Finally, the opportunity to learn how to *really* help. Now they could program the Agent to identify what causes fires, remove materials that help fires spread, and then help rebuild the forest destroyed by fire. They could learn from research provided by Microsoft’s AI for Earth and see the difference they can make. It seems like a really simple task but giving kids practical learning and real-life application is the best way to combat the stress and anxiety they experience in national disasters. It is the sense of learning something. Doing something.
And then one of the kids turned to their teacher and asked, “If we can learn this now, why aren’t the politicians learning it too?”
Why aren’t the grown-ups learning to code and explore ecosystems? Why aren’t they enforcing limits on plastic production to prevent it from entering our oceans? Why aren’t they using coding to promote sustainability?
All fair questions.
Wow. My article about Hour of Code has turned into a presentation on social awareness in our classrooms. And yet that is possibly one of the greatest strengths of Hour of Code.
It is not simply an hour-long-introduction to coding. It is an opportunity to connect kids with their futures. Computer Science is part of our future. There is no denying that. However, social issues are also part of it; no matter how uncomfortable or awkward the conversation might be. By presenting activities with social relevance, we are opening the minds of our kids and encouraging greater learning.
They may not solve the Bushfire crisis with their Hour of Code activity but at least they are thinking about more than simply “thoughts and prayers for our volunteer firies”.