The students in Kirsten Lunzer's fourth-grade class watch as Codey the Troll crosses their computer screen, guided by the program they wrote to leap obstacles and collect blue jelly beans.
These programming-savvy students in Minnetonka are on the leading edge of a new high-tech era that has Minnesota schools scrambling to respond to student demand for computer science classes that teach them how to develop software, apps, games and websites.
An increasing number of Minnesota students are forming software coding clubs, attending coding camps, and participating in organized coding events known as CoderDojos, which are popping up across the state.
"We are witnessing a massive change in how the world views coding," said Rebecca Schatz, founder of Code Savvy, a local nonprofit working to expand coding opportunities for kids. "It's entrepreneurial, it's progressive, it's where the jobs are. Coding is cool."
Held bimonthly at the University of Minnesota, CoderDojo Twin Cities is believed to be the biggest event of its kind in the nation and typically fills up minutes after registration opens.
"There's a real spectrum of interests among the kids that show up here," said Matt Gray, one of the event's co-founders. "We'll meet kids here who almost certainly are going to become a software engineer in the future. And we'll meet kids who are new to it all and really just interested in some of the more creative aspects of programming. This is a place where it all can happen."
Oliver Hall recently constructed a virtual wall in Minecraft, a gaming program that requires players to write code to manipulate the scenes. With a click of a button, the wall explodes.
"Well, it was made of TNT," said Hall, a seventh-grader at Anthony Middle School in Minneapolis. "That's probably not a surprise."
Hall was one of about 100 students who participated in the most recent CoderDojo Twin Cities, where software engineers and website developers worked with kids ages 8 to 17.
These mentors are no sweater-and-tie debate team coaches. Instead, think hoodies and bluejeans.
"When I was at the University of Minnesota there were no classes in web development," said Drew Covi, an interaction designer for Honeywell and a CoderDojo mentor. "So the opportunity to teach the kids some of the skills that I had to pick up on my own is just great."
CoderDojo Twin Cities started in April as a joint effort between Code Savvy and Clockwork Active Media.
"Students not only learn coding skills here, they learn to collaborate," said Gray, Clockwork's vice president of technology. "They become more confident. They are more apt to speak to their peers sitting next to them to work toward a common goal. And that's sort of a surprising outcome. The stereotype of a programmer is that they're antisocial and keep their head down and don't talk to other humans. That's not what happens here."
Given the immense popularity of CoderDojo Twin Cities, several other dojos have formed to help meet the demand. St. Catherine University in St. Paul runs a Katie CoderDojo, an event for girls.
"Clearly there's a critical need among companies for employees who are computer literate, people who understand coding," said Siri Anderson, St. Kate's director of online learning. "But there is underrepresentation of girls in computer programming and engineering fields. And there shouldn't be."
Peyton Winegarden, 10, has attended several Katie CoderDojos and has become adept at Scratch, a coding language users can learn to manipulate an animated cat.
"I really think coding will help me get more job opportunities later on," said Winegarden, who attends a French immersion school in St. Paul. "And it also really helps me understand the world around me."
A basic skill
Minnesota is one of about 26 states that don't count computer science toward a math or science graduation credit. Currently, it is a general elective.
In August, a fledgling state group of computer science teachers collected a petition with about 1,600 signatures asking the Minnesota Department of Education to make computer science a requirement, particularly as iPads and Google Chromebooks are becoming as common as textbooks and paper folders.
Teachers hope adopting a coding curriculum would help close the technological achievement gap between more affluent districts and those whose students have lower income.
"There are some real equity issues out there," said Jennifer Rosato, a St. Scholastica assistant professor who helped organize the petition. "Not everyone has a computer, or Internet access at home."
While schools aren't required to teach coding, many have offered some instruction, either through an after-school program, online tutorial or as part of an Advanced Placement computer science class.
"Over the past two years, I would say we've seen an increase in the number of phone calls we get a week, from one or two, to now six or seven, from principals, teachers and parents wanting help in finding coding resources," said Doug Paulson, with the state Department of Education.
One of the reasons schools have been somewhat reluctant to require coding is because many teachers don't know how to code, or how to teach it. But that could change as more colleges begin offering courses for teachers.
Many coding advocates say that schools are on the verge of recognizing that computer programming is becoming a basic literacy skill that every student needs to know.
"We've reached a tipping point," Anderson said. "At some point, Minnesota has to get on the front end of coding because our schools have the capacity to do it."
Minnetonka leads the way
Minnetonka is the only school district in the state that has embedded coding into its curriculum.
Lunzer, a teacher at Deephaven Elementary, was a computer chip designer before becoming a teacher, and the opportunity to teach students to write basic computer code proved to be perfect for her. She also worked on the team that designed Minnetonka's new coding curriculum.
The team, which included parents, designed the curriculum around an entry-level program that wouldn't intimidate most teachers, said Eric Schneider, the district's assistant superintendent.
The curriculum relies heavily on Tynker, a Scratch-like, entry-level coding language. Students use coding applications in English, math, science and art instruction.
"It's all about critical thinking and problem solving, all the skills we want kids to use," Schneider said.
Marta Snow, whose daughter Isabela is in Lunzer's class, said she's thrilled the school district is teaching coding.
"I initially thought some kids might be turned off because [they] thought the science and math would be too much," she said. "But making it part of the curriculum and a natural part of the school day is great."
Schneider said district officials have discussed expanding coding instruction at the high school and are hopeful the state will someday make computer science classes count toward graduation.
In the meantime, Lunzer and other teachers are buoyed by some of the early results they're seeing at the elementary level.
"What I learned as a programmer is that there are many ways to solve a problem," she said.
"And I see my students learning that and applying it to every aspect of their coursework. It builds perseverance."
Kim McGuire • 612-673-4469