TL; DR: codeSpark Academy aims to make computer science education fun and accessible for kids ages 5 to 9 through an innovative coding platform featuring whimsical characters. Educators also love the app because it empowers them to leverage an interdisciplinary approach when introducing computational thinking to the classroom. Now, as codeSpark unveils a Girl Scouts collaboration and plans for international expansion, the company is providing even more opportunities for kids around the world to learn the skills of the future.
Ten years ago, possessing coding skills was a bonus in the workplace — nice to have, but not required in most fields other than programming. But today, they’re in demand across a range of careers, including data analytics, graphic design, engineering, and science.
And it pays to have them. According to a 2016 Burning Glass Technologies report, coding experience opens the door for top-dollar jobs. The study found that 50% of positions in the high-income range, defined as $57,000 per year or more, are found in occupations that require coding skills.
According to Grant Hosford, Founder & CEO of codeSpark Academy, these truths are finally making their way into the classroom.
“The market is maturing reasonably quickly, both in terms of parents understanding the value and kids gaining interest,” he said. “As far as the integration of coding into the classroom, three years ago, parents weren’t convinced that coding was a core skill. Now, it’s increasingly viewed as a must-have.”
Of course, parents and teachers need tools to facilitate this learning objective — and that’s where codeSpark comes in. The educational tech app teaches kids ages 5 through 9 the basics of coding through a fun and engaging game. The innovative system, designed to inspire the next generation of coders, features more than 1,000 activities that each tackle a fundamental coding concept.
The platform also makes it easy for teachers to leverage an interdisciplinary approach to introducing computational thinking through easy integrations with various subjects. With a recently announced Girl Scouts collaboration, plans for international expansion, and additional features on the way, codeSpark is making the learning process even more accessible.
An Innovative System Inspiring the Next Generation of Coders
Between short attention spans, lack of motivation, and fear of failure, many kids encounter challenges when learning new things, especially when the subject is as seemingly intimidating as coding.
Enter the Foos — a colorful cast of cartoons that inhabit an imaginative world. In Foosville, kids learn to code as they help characters find lost items, care for pets, feed diners, and sort candy. Each game relates to a specific coding concept, such as sequencing, loops, conditional statements, events, and Boolean logic.
“We’ve taken tools that traditionally were only available to adults, and we’ve abstracted them down to be appropriate for elementary school kids,” Grant said. “At the end of the day, when kids get excited, it drives them to take ownership of their own education.”
When children have the opportunity to build things they care about, such as video games or animated stories, they’re more likely to persist in solving difficult problems, Grant said.
To appeal to the broadest possible group of children, the Foos were also designed with inclusion in mind. For example, codeSpark’s female characters include ninjas, astronauts, and police. Character tropes are intentionally avoided: The female Foo is never depicted as a damsel in distress; rather, she solves her own problems with the assistance of the student.
“There’s a lot of inertia against women being in these roles, so the sooner we can reach girls and give them the confidence that STEM careers are for them, the better off they’ll be,” Grant said. “If later in life they encounter someone with old ways of thinking, it won’t matter. They will already have the power to thrive in a world traditionally dominated by men.”
Leverage an Interdisciplinary Approach Through Strategic Integrations
Interdisciplinary teaching, a method that brings together different curricular disciplines to solve a common purpose, has been shown to help students forge new connections, foster critical thinking skills, and pursue real-world growth opportunities.
In an effort to bring those benefits to young tech students, codeSpark provides tools for empowering teachers to merge coding with other subjects, including language arts. “We rolled out a new part of our platform last fall that allows kids to create interactive stories — somewhat like a comic strip coming to life,” Grant said.
The feature, provided as a free update to codeSpark academy members, includes a word-free coding interface that students can use to make their beloved Foos talk, walk, and play. “Teachers love it because it’s hard to find time in the day to teach coding, even when they’re fully on board with the need to do it,” Grant said. “Now, they can teach coding during a language arts lesson.”
The platform also features a game maker intended to keep young coders entertained while they polish up on their computer science skills. With the SuperFoos Adventure pack, free for all codeSpark Academy members, kids can program their heroes to battle evil villains in Foosville.
For those with a little more computer science experience, codeSpark’s minigame, Crocodile Catch, leads players through an Ancient Temple of Knowledge. There, they can explore how to use variables in loops and conditionals, as well as how to add, subtract, and set variable values.
Helping Teachers Bring Computational Thinking to the Classroom
When Grant and his Co-Founder Joe Shochet launched codeSpark in March 2014, he said teachers were mainly dabbling in the platform. Today, they’ve honed in on the tool as a concrete way to teach what is now considered a vital skill. “This past school year, we saw a surge in teachers who use the platform at least once a week,” he said. “Now, more than 60% of our teachers do that.”
Grant said teachers are often attracted to codeSpark because of its ability to foster computational thinking — a concept defined by Carnegie Mellon as “a way of solving problems, designing systems, and understanding human behavior that draws on concepts fundamental to computer science.”
“We started growing through word of mouth from teacher to teacher, and now we have more than 60,000 educators using the platform,” Grant said.
Now, entire districts are beginning to reach out to the company for collaboration opportunities. The Teacher Dashboard, a classroom tool featuring curriculum, unplugged activities, and access controls, is provided for free to public schools and libraries. But codeSpark also offers paid professional development opportunities on a district-wide basis to help educators enhance their overall approach to coding education.
“Ultimately, our focus is to help K through 5 teachers understand how to effectively bring computational thinking into their classrooms,” Grant said.
International Expansion and More Creative Opportunities
When it comes to the future, one thing is clear: The codeSpark team isn’t going to experience any boredom. The company is unveiling multiple new initiatives and has several more in the pipeline.
In July, CodeSpark revealed that it has joined forces with the Girl Scouts of the United States of America to encourage girls to get a head start in computer science.
“Girl Scouts recently announced that it’s adding 42 new STEM-based merit badges, and nine of them are coding badges that we created,” Grant said. “We created three for the Daisies, three for the Brownies, and three for the Juniors — these are the first age groups to have coding-related badges.”
The company also continues to steadily expand internationally. “Last year we set up cloud services in China so that we’d be on the proper side of the firewall and be able to serve that market more effectively,” Grant said.
In addition, codeSpark will double down on its efforts to merge creativity with code through additional opportunities to create stories, games, and music.
“At the end of the day, coding is a tool for creating and problem-solving that supports every other subject, so we’re building out our content to feature more integrations,” Grant said. “We think that’s going to continue to be the trend for some time.”