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Turning kids into computer wizards

Credit: Fig. 1 by University of California

What if computer programming could be as fun as playing video games? That’s the idea behind ThoughtSTEM, a startup that teaches kids to code through immersive games where they create and control virtual environments.

One of ThoughtSTEM’s signature creations is CodeSpells, a wizarding game in which kids conjure objects and spawn mystical creations, using spell books to learn the required commands. But rather than incantations like "Alohomora" and "Stupefy!" students use programming languages such as Scratch and Alice to complete their quests.

In the course of their adventure, students master programming concepts like looping, parameters, functions and variables – skills college undergraduates sometimes struggle to learn.

The company, founded by three UC San Diego graduate students, is working with more than 500 teachers in the U.S. and around the world, and has sold 40,000 coding games to kids and their parents.

In addition, the company is working directly with 30 schools in San Diego to train teachers and bring a computer programming curriculum into the classroom.

Only 10 percent of K-12 schools provide any form of instruction in computer programming, according to ThoughtSTEM.

One big reason: few teachers themselves know how to code. ThoughtSTEM is looking to change that by providing teachers with a curriculum and learning tools that will make instruction in the subject easy for them and fun for students.

“I am in the firm belief that everyone should learn some form of computer literacy,” said ThoughtSTEM co-founder Sarah Guthals, who was named one of Forbes' 30 Under 30 breakout talents in science this year for her role in bringing computer instruction to the classroom.

“Programming is not just about telling a computer what you want it to do. It’s also about breaking down a problem into smaller subsets. It’s about understanding a problem at its core and figuring out the steps you need to take to solve it.”

By third or fourth grade, most students have the math skills they need to start learning to code, Guthals said. “The concepts aren’t that difficult,” she said. But often the material is presented in a way that is dry and repetitive rather than drawing on what they know and love.

Kids’ affinity for games like Minecraft and CodeSpells gives them a natural incentive to learn, Guthals believes. “You shouldn’t have to stop learning to do the playing and stop playing to do the learning.”

Her approach could make computer class as beloved as recess – and prepare a generation of technology whiz kids.