Teach elementary students to code through interest-driven projects
– Jared O’Leary, Ph.D

Coding environments and curricula with puzzles and challenges often utilize engaging platforms which guide young coders to learn fundamental coding concepts and practices. These environments and curricula often progress from simple through complex algorithmic sequences with clearly defined solutions. This approach not only provides useful resources for young coders new to coding, but for adults new to teaching, facilitating, or evaluating coding classes. Although these approaches are useful, most puzzle-based coding platforms lack more creative applications of code to solve problems with many potential solutions. Such an approach to learning can encourage surface level understanding without potential for application of understanding through meaningful coding projects.

To engage all learners, including those with no preexisting interest in the subject area, consider utilizing an approach centered on creating and remixing interest-driven coding projects. Such an approach creates a space for a variety of interests to drive deep learning, as young coders engaged with projects using multiple programming languages to create music, art, animation, games, stories, or even apps. Young coders might also be encouraged to design and propose their own projects of interest. For example, asking students to pick a project that’s interesting to them and working with them to find a way to explore that interest with code.

BootUp PD Interest-Driven Coding Projects
Using Sonic Pi, this young coder recreated her favorite songs from her band method book and was able to combine her passion for music with learning coding fundamentals.

Through this approach, coders determine when a project is completed, or switch projects if they lose interest. Although some fear this encourages elementary kids to give up when a challenge is presented, I found the opposite is true. Because coders do not have to worry about solving a problem or creating a product within a fixed timeframe, they can instead focus on taking their time and engaging in something they are interested in. This approach leads some kids to work on projects for several classes, while others spend multiple years creating and refining meaningful projects.

Because interest-driven projects have no fixed deadlines, coders who are absent can simply resume their work when they return without missing vital information delivered through lectures on a topic. If a coder joins your district midway through a school year, or multiple years into your coding initiative, have them work on projects with complexity relative to their prior experiences. In addition, consider encouraging a mixed range of expertise and multiple points of entry at any time throughout a school year.

Facilitating interest-driven projects in K-8 coding classroom is a lot of fun, and can lead to more creative expressions and more depth of understanding than puzzle-based coding. By finding ways to learn fundamental concepts and practices through the interests of the kids we work with, we may achieve the goal of providing high quality computer science education for all.

Some resources to get started with interest-driven coding projects: