Bitsbox: Engaging coding projects for the classroom

We recently spoke with Scott Lininger, who co-founded Bitsbox with Aidan Chopra. Scott got the idea for Bitsbox when his daughter asked him if he could teach her to how to code. After tinkering and toying with different ideas, he came up with the prototype for Bitsbox. Scott’s motivation to create Bitsbox also comes from his own childhood experience. Having been raised in a small town in Northeast Colorado with few opportunities, Scott’s ability to code landed him a job at Google and completely changed his life. Bitsbox recently appeared on Shark Tank and has received funding from the Boomtown accelerator and Kickstarter. The company is based in Boulder, CO.

Bitsbox is an education startup focused on helping kids learn to code. Through its programming kits, students learn key concepts in coding while working on projects that are exciting and fun. While Bitsbox offers a home-based version of its product (which is a recommendation teachers could provide to parents), this piece will focus on how Bitsbox is used at school.

To begin, let’s take a look at how Bitsbox works. The first question on our mind was what sets Bitsbox apart from other programming resources out there?

In a word, motivation. It turns out, just like in any other activity, once you’ve gotten a child interested in coding, the next challenge is in getting them to stick with it. The Hour of Code (a global movement of giving children a one-hour introduction to computer science) is a great example of this. While it does an excellent job at getting kids started with programming, it isn’t entirely clear where students should go from there.

The next problem is that many of the other sites and tools out there – Codecademy and CodeHS – are designed for older students or adult learners. These are also examples where “bring-your-own-motivation” applies. Bitsbox was specifically designed for children 6-14, and thus, its projects are created to be self-directed and motivating. The way it works is this: each month, the company releases a new kit that contains numerous projects that students can select from and get started on right away.

So if you’re an educator who’d like to bring Bitsbox into your classroom or school, what’s the best way to begin? Is there a good way to try this out?

Certainly. Bitsbox provides its own “Hour of Code” project and recommends interested teachers give it a whirl with their students. All that’s needed is time in the computer lab or a classroom set of Chromebooks. From there, students can go town creating their first set of apps (and be largely self-reliant along the way).

Next, let’s explore some of the ways in which teachers are using Bitsbox in the classroom.

Some teachers have their schools purchase them a regular digital subscription. This allows teachers to print up to 30 sets of the materials and distribute them to students. And as mentioned before, each month’s materials include 12 different projects, so students can self-select what interests them the most. Some teachers have even found ways to integrate the Bitsbox materials into their academic units.

Other teachers have decided to purchase just a few sets of materials and use them as a station-style activity or reward for students who’ve finished their work. This is also a good route to explore for after-school programming. Because all of the projects contain various challenges (once the core concepts are mastered), students can continue working at a level that’s appropriate for them. For example, after a student has successfully built the “Space Invaders” app, where they move around their ship in space and attack the enemies, they might be challenged to create levels to the game or add a scoreboard to their screen.

The company also offers a Library and Makerspace kit which is perfect for turning an unused school space into a creative laboratory. This kit includes 20 different sets of books, which means students have access to hundreds of projects they can explore and build. Again, based on what’s interesting to them.

So you might be wondering – does this require a teacher to be a computer whiz? And what happens when a student needs help?

 Not to worry! Each Bitsbox contains everything a student needs to succeed on their own. That’s because all of the projects begin with students typing in code exactly as it’s provided. That means teachers (and students) can quickly identify 90% of problems just by matching up a student’s screen to the instructions. And for all remaining problems, it’s usually the case that students end up troubleshooting with each other. Each kit also contains “grown-up guides” that explain the underlying concepts and how teachers might best support their students.

So it might seem that Bitsbox has made students self-reliant. But, rest assured – that’s quite intentional. The company doesn’t want a student falling back on a teacher each time a mistake occurs. Unlike other skills, coding provides immediate gratification if you succeed – the program works, the bug goes away, you get to play the game. By the same token, you also know right away when you’ve made a mistake, and it becomes that much more satisfying to fix it.

Finally, for our more technically-minded educators, we asked - what type of programming does Bitsbox prepare students for?

Scott explained it to us this way. Although not obvious to students, there’s a purposeful curriculum behind each Bitsbox kit. Each month, all of the activities are designed around a given concept. For instance, this month’s topic might be “loops,” which allow students to create repeated action in programming. Bitsbox is also designed so that completing a year’s worth of its kits would be equivalent to finishing a programming 101 course.

And as far as the languages are concerned – students are building HTLM5 applications and programming them in JavaScript.

Huh – come again? Will Bitsbox get my students ready for the languages they’ll need in a career?

Think of it this way – coding is a lot like learning music. When you begin, you select a single instrument and you practice it over and over again. But once you have the basics and are able to read music, it’s a lot easier to switch instruments. The same applies to coding – once a student is comfortable in Python or Java, moving on to the next challenge is a lot easier. And with Bitsbox the student gets to pick their “instrument” (project), and have fun while building their foundational knowledge in programming.

So as far as Bitsbox is concerned, just play the music! And let your students build, build, build . . .

Scott also recommended that educators check out the following resources:

The Bitsbox “Teacher’s List” – Scott recommended this as a great way for educators to stay on top of its latest releases and coolest projects

Teacher’s Getting Started Guide

Codecademy – they have the best, “easy-to-get-started and build something” platform; great resource for advanced students and teachers once Bitsbox is mastered