The students at Timbercrest Junior High maneuvered angry cartoon birds and ravenous zombies through mazes.
They commanded wizards tasked with breaking their friends out of an ogre prison. They created animated holiday cards with waving snowmen and twinkling stars.
The students jumped at the chance to play computer games during school, but the event had another purpose: to get students interested in computer programming, so that one day they might be the ones making computer games, or working in one of many other fields involving computer science.
Recently, all Timbercrest students participated in the Hour of Code, an annual, nationwide event that gives students — or learners of any age — the chance to try computer science.
But how much can anyone learn in one hour?
"The Hour of Code is a way to get a lot more students exposed to computer science and make computer science more of a core discipline," Josh Caldwell, who teaches computer science and English at Timbercrest, said. "It’s about making kids aware of what they can do with computer technology… In an hour, they’ll have a much better idea of what it means to program something."
Just because kids are adept at using technology such as smartphones and social media doesn’t mean they know anything about computer programming.
"Too often we assume that because kids are exposed to technology, that somehow makes them more equipped to understand it and work with it, and that’s not true," Caldwell said.
"It’s not enough to be near a computer and use it."
Timbercrest Principal Joe Mismas said giving kids a glimpse of what computer science is like can, hopefully, spark an interest in programming that will pave the way to a career in technology.
"There are so many people out there who know nothing about coding, and the career possibilities in the next few years are just going to skyrocket," Mismas said.
At Timbercrest, students learned the Hour of Code during their science or social studies classes.
They used interactive, game-like tutorials found at csedweek.org, with characters from popular video games such as "Angry Birds" and "Plants vs. Zombies," as well as video lectures from famous tech innovators such as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg.
The tutorials are designed to be self-directed, so teachers don’t have to know anything about computer science. It also allows each student to work on something at their own level.
Some students were surprised they got to play games during class. Dima Minkin, an eighth grader at Timbercrest, said she expected "actual coding, like numbers and stuff. I thought it would be harder and not fun."
Although the tutorials are designed as games, they teach concepts like repeat-loops and functions that programmers use to write actual code.
"All of the lessons are teaching basic computer science applications," Damen Schuneman, career and college readiness director for the Northshore School District, said.
"... It was very engaging for kids. It wasn’t just numbers and typing in and writing in code."
If the Hour of Code does spark an interest in computer science for Northshore students, the district offers a number of other computer science classes in junior high and high schools, from Beginning Computer Applications to more specific classes in drafting, engineering, web design, robotics, computer game design and computer programming in C# and Java.
Students can learn more about technology classes by visiting nsd.org/cte or talking to their school counselor.
"We as a district have a deep understanding and appreciation of computer science," Schuneman said, as well as its ability to help students understand and apply science and math.
Nathan Click, another Timbercrest eighth grader, took Computer Applications last year, in which he learned a little bit of computer programming — and how to learn more on his own through websites like codeacademy.com.
"I made a website for myself, just to experiment to see what I could do," he said. "It was just something fun for me to do."
Someday, he hopes to attend DigiPen Institute of Technology in Redmond, a university that specializes in computer and video game development.
Photo by Briana Gerdeman. Eric Pratis (left) and Nathan Click (right), eighth graders at Timbercrest, play game-like tutorials that teach computer science concepts as part of the Hour of Code, a nationwide event that aims to make all students familiar with computer science. Paraprofessional Paula Renfrow (back) offers help.