Newswise — By the time they get to school, most children are old hands at using cell phones, laptops and video games. But few understand much about how these devices work or about the people who write the programs that run them.

That’s the idea behind the Hour of Code, a global movement that aims to get everyone, kids to adults, to try computer coding for an hour. It’s an idea the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory wholeheartedly supports.

That’s why Argonne’s Educational Programs Department coordinated an effort to send computer scientists from Argonne and Fermilab National Laboratory and computer science students from the University of Chicago into schools in the greater Chicago area last December. In all, the effort sent 45 scientists to visit 49 schools in five counties. They met with over 4,000 students, offering them both a taste of coding and a glimpse at a possible career.

“The aim is to connect computer scientists with the student/teacher community and break down barriers,” said Jessica Dietzel, who leads education outreach for Argonne’s Educational Programs Department. “Students get to have an interaction with real scientists who have careers doing work that has so many real-world applications. It allows them to see the scientists as real people, not some unattainable ideal.”

That was exactly what happened when Argonne computer scientist Ken Raffenetti visited New Sullivan Elementary School on Chicago’s far southeast side. Raffenetti talked to a packed room of students aged ten to 14 about what he does at Argonne, answered their questions and helped them as they worked on an Hour of Code programming activity.

“These kids may know doctors and attorneys or entertainers. But they’ve never met scientists,” said Rodney Williams, a New Sullivan teacher who runs a popular before-school coding club and helped organize the event. “A lot of them don’t think of that as a career. They see something on TV — entertainment or sports — and they think those are the only choices of careers. So to see a scientist and say, ‘I want to be a scientist,’ that’s a great thing.”

This was Argonne’s second year sending computer scientists to schools for the Hour of Code. Participants attended a training session where they were given some preparation on what to expect. They also got a template for developing short, kid-friendly presentations about what they do, how it applies to their work at Argonne and how they got interested in programming and computers.

In his presentation, Raffenetti said he tried to “give the kids a story from when I was their age to now, how I got to where I am and how computers played a role in that.” He also opened their eyes to the range of possibilities a computer career can offer.

“Computer science is such a broad field,” he said. “I showed them how the code that I write can be taken by other people who do calculations and math on top of it, and how that allows them to do real interesting scientific experiments and simulations. The things we do at Argonne with simulation, the way we use our main computers — I think that was something they hadn’t seen before.”

The seventh and eighth graders in the Jerling Junior High School Hour of Code group were surprised to learn how many fields computer scientists work in. Until Argonne software engineer Jackie Copple’s presentation, they mainly knew only about website and video game design.

“Jackie was wonderful,” said Judy Stellato, the teacher in charge of the sessions at the Orland Park school. “She talked to them about what a computer scientist does and what kinds of things computer scientists can go into: ‘You want to go into medicine? There are computer scientists working in medicine.’ She gave them that broader picture.” The coding exercise Stellato designed also surprised the kids. She had them “program” each other to move square by square around the tile floor and pick up a box. The precision with which every move had to be specified was unexpected. Copple roamed the room, asking questions and offering help.

“They loved having her come around and give comments,” Stellato says. “She’d ask, ‘How would you do this?’ or say ‘Wow! That’s really great that you thought of that.’ Coming from a real computer scientist! They were just beaming from her input and her encouragement.”

The day was such a success that Copple agreed to mentor the students for an upcoming class project building and programing Lego robots. “She was really excited to have the kids so interested,” said Stellato. “And the fact that we’re going to be able to keep in touch with her was very special for them.”

“My kids have benefited incredibly from scientists coming here,” she continued. “Seeing that they like what they do! To see them really getting into it, talking about how much they enjoy their work, that’s really great.”

It’s great for the scientists as well. “I see computer science and code as an important piece of the education landscape in our future,” said Raffenetti. “So I thought this was a cool opportunity. And besides,” he added, “I had a blast.”

Argonne National Laboratory seeks solutions to pressing national problems in science and technology. The nation's first national laboratory, Argonne conducts leading-edge basic and applied scientific research in virtually every scientific discipline. Argonne researchers work closely with researchers from hundreds of companies, universities, and federal, state and municipal agencies to help them solve their specific problems, advance America's scientific leadership and prepare the nation for a better future. With employees from more than 60 nations, Argonne is managed by UChicago Argonne, LLC for the U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science.The U.S. Department of Energy's Office of Science is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States and is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time. For more information, visit the Office of Science website.