Innovation

Star Wars, Minecraft, and Code.org partner to teach kids to code

Code.org's Hadi Partovi talked about working with Star Wars and Minecraft to not only teach kids to code, but also bust stereotypes using pop culture

As Code.org's third annual Hour of Code approaches, the computer science education non-profit is enticing kids to spend some time coding through some big name partnerships with Disney and Minecraft.

The Hour of Code is an initiative in the form of a one-hour introduction to computer science. Anyone can sign up through the website. It's available at any time, but the big push comes during Computer Science Education Week, Dec. 7-13. So far, more than 138,803,502 students have completed their Hour of Code.

This year, one way to spend that hour is working on tutorials themed with Star Wars or Minecraft.

The Minecraft tutorial teaches students to make two of the main character skins from the game, Alex and Steve, using blocks of code, and then walks them through tasks in the world like shearing sheep. It also includes other challenges, like what kids might be familiar with in the popular sandbox game which was purchased by Microsoft last year for $2.5 billion.

"With Minecraft and Code.org, we aim to spark creativity in the next generation of innovators in a way that is natural, collaborative and fun," said Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella in a statement.

In the Star Wars tutorial, students learn to program droids and build a game.

Code.org founder Hadi Partovi said that while many people know that computer science is important, intimidation can be a barrier to getting started.

"By bringing the pop culture cool factor of an amazing brand, what that does is makes the kids want to do it," he said.

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As far as Star Wars, this isn't Code.org's first partnership with its parent company Disney. Last year they offered a Frozen-themed tutorial which was completed more than 13 million times. This year, Partovi said they wanted to come up with a theme that had a broader age demographic. Last January, he started trying to figure out what would be a big deal by December—Star Wars was that thing with its December 17 release date.

They reached out to Disney, and after a lot of back and forth, Lucasfilm agreed to work with Code.org, and for the last six months, they've collaborated on creating the tutorial—including finding a sweet spot in creating an engaging game, but not one that takes hours and hours for students to build.

Partovi said there was a lot of thought that went into the design of the tutorials, including the decision to have Star Wars characters Rey and Princess Leia, both women, as coaches helping students write code to program droids BB-8, C-3PO, and R2-D2.

"Having Rey and Leia and the droids is something very empowering and inspiring, to say 'this isn't something just for the boys, it's not just something for the nerds, it's something that every kid can do,'" Partovi said.

Busting stereotypes in order to bring more women and minorities into computer science is an important goal for Code.org. Currently, only 23% of computing jobs are held by women, and 18% of bachelor's degrees in computer science go to women, and another 18% to blacks and Hispanics. In high schools, 9% of the students who take the AP computer science exam are Hispanic, and 4% black.

Part of the effort to raise those numbers is to get all kinds of kids familiar and engaged in computer science.

"Learning is about a lot more than an hour. It's about getting multi-hour, year-long courses at the high school level, and semester-long courses at the middle school level. Learning starts with the first hour and putting aside your stereotypes and intimidation," Partovi said.

Code.org estimates that more than 100,000 teachers will partcipate in the Hour of Code and at least 25,000 of them will go on to teach more than one hour.

Both tutorials are available on the Code.org website.

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About Erin Carson

Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.

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