Even something as exciting as technology can be made boring.

That’s what Nick Winter, cofounder and CEO of CodeCombat found. Despite the growing emphasis on coding education, he found a lot of the materials used to teach kids to code relied on dragging and dropping blocks of code. There had to be a more engaging way to teach kids a necessary 21st century skill.

CodeCombat
CodeCombat

That’s the idea behind CodeCombat, his desktop program that helps kids learn to code through an interactive narrative video game with warriors, wizards, and ogres. After it reached 5 million users as a standalone desktop game, the San Francisco-based startup launched a school-specific version that lets teachers customize the game to their curriculum and track student progress.

Since launching their beta in January, they’ve had over 25,000 students test out the school-specific version. And Chicago Public Schools, the first major school district to make computer science a graduation requirement, was one of the districts with the highest interest as local educators are looking for ways to bring tech into the classroom at all levels.

This June, CodeCombat launched a pilot in five schools (Walt Disney Magnet School, Decatur Classical Elementary School, Murphy Elementary School, Enrico Tonti Elementary School, Dore Elementary School) to see how their program can help elementary and middle school students start learning computer science at a young age. Following the success of these pilots, they have plans to expand into the district further in coming years.

“Chicago being a leader in this CS4All movement, it was a natural target for us to work with some early adopters who already get the need for computer science in K12,” said Winter.

“Chicago gets it in the way that most don’t,” he added. “They’re looking for the best stuff out there as opposed to the easiest stuff.”

Games, such as CodeCombat, help kids learn in a variety of ways said Winter. Instead of just studying a computer science concept, students are in active conversation with the game, writing code (Python and Javacript) to get to the next level. Students can work at their own pace, and get comfortable with failure as a part of learning. This is also helpful for bringing girls into computer science (this helps them develop a growth, rather than fixed, mindset) and students still learning english (the game has been translated to 50 languages).

“They build fluency much faster than listening to a 30 minute lecture on variables,” he said.

Michael Rammer, assistant principal at Irving Park’s Murphy Elementary School, agrees. “It’s a great chance for students to develop a kind of patience,” Rammer said. “Though it has immediate feedback, they’re working on investigating logical structures.”

There’s also an enthusiasm for learning: Rammer said the students working on CodeCombat (from 4th to 8th grade) have told him they play the game over the weekend.

At the moment, student enthusiasm and educator use are mostly how CodeCombat measures outcomes–Winter pointed out there aren’t universal standards for computer science yet. He added that CodeCombat covers the same concepts that will be tested on an AP Computer Science exam and Stanford University’s freshman level computer science classes. 

To suggest they have to wait until high school to code is missing out on innate brilliance that all students have

At Murphy, Rammer supplements the game in older grade levels through a teaching assistant who helps students see how the code they’ve learned translates to real world projects.

Rammer said though the computer science requirement doesn’t have to be filled until students are in high school, he wants to get kids working on tech as early as possible.

“To suggest they have to wait until high school to code is missing out on innate brilliance that all students have,” he said. “When we look at students, we see endless possibility. If you’re not giving them exposure to these rich experiences, then you’re missing out on these opportunities.”