During their lunch break, students at Branciforte Middle School in Santa Cruz are building a fence for sheep and creating snowmen and dogs. This is all happening indoors on a small tablet screen where these students are learning to code in 45-minute intervals.
“Draw a playpen for Sally Sheep. Make sure it has an area of 20 units squared,” says the instructions of a gamified lesson for the new programming application Code Naturally.
Developed by recent UC Santa Cruz graduates, Code Naturally uses a “math first approach” to teach students how to code, CEO Sukh Singh said. The team formally incorporated in July 2015 and are now in the testing stages of the application before releasing it to the public.
Each coding lesson involves a “code-venture,” a task structured to be played like a game that teaches students a new coding skill. There are start-ups similar to Code Naturally, like Tynker, The Foos and Scratch, that focus on making programming accessible and fun for younger children.
What sets Code Naturally apart is its hand-to-type recognition and implementation of mathematical concepts like Cartesian coordinates, perimeter, area, ratios and algebra. This often aligns with what students learn in their classes.
“I want [Code Naturally] to fit perfectly into the classroom,” Singh said, which is why his team is working closely with teachers and students to test the product before it goes on the market.
Singh came up with the idea behind Code Naturally after noticing his programming professor writing a line of code on the board and then switch to typing it on the computer. He thought this was a waste of class time. By making an application that translated handwritten code directly into typed code, Singh could help teachers convey their lessons more efficiently.
As Singh continued to develop his idea conceptually and commercially, he realized the technology from handwritten translation could benefit younger students trying to learn programming. When kids first learn to code, they focus too much on the typing aspect, Singh said. By letting them handwrite, they are able to focus on the concept of programming.
Makenna Sandidge and Saleh Scott are two sixth-grade students beta testing Code Naturally at Branciforte Middle School. They volunteer their lunchtime to work with Singh, who started beta-testing at the middle school in January.
“It’s really simple to learn, and if it was implemented into classrooms, it would be really effective because it’s educational and fun,” Saleh said.
These two students zip through the coding lessons in minutes, so they can draw freely with the program, which translates into code. “The first thing I made was a snowman,” Makenna said, “but right now I’m working on a dog.”
Branciforte Middle School teacher Kathy Sandidge is most concerned with the digital divide among her students. Because not all students have access to technology at home, she said schools must be the place where students can access and learn how to use technology.
“Classroom learning is definitely going towards more technology based,” Sandidge said. “I like to tell my kids, ‘We’re getting you ready for stuff that hasn’t even been invented yet.’”
The students’ excitement about the app led the developers to expand the three-week Code Naturally bootcamp class from 10 to 20 students.
“Code Naturally is really riding the edge of the wave of what’s happening with California state standards,” Sandidge said. “We’re infusing technology into all of our classes. It’s perfect timing.”
Saleh and Makenna offer direct feedback to Singh and Alfred Young, Code Naturally chief technology officer and UCSC graduate, to work out kinks in their application. Young developed the Code Naturally prototype last summer and is continuing to develop more lessons and code-ventures.
The application is intended for students in kindergarten through eighth grade and is projected to cover all curriculum in the Introduction to Java Programming class at UCSC.
“We want to teach them this basic language first [Processing JS],” Young said, “so when they get to programming at a higher level, it won’t seem so alien.”
The developers at Code Naturally said they want to give younger students the tools to participate in the booming technology industry and help drive societal innovation forward.
“[Code Naturally] is meant to empower kids,” Young said. “It’s giving them the power to build something.”