Kenwood coding

Kenwood second-grader Jacob Blatzer watches as iLuminate dancer Matthew Dobbins performs in the school’s cafeteria as a part of Computer Science Education Week.

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CHAMPAIGN — Tabitha Dunn wanted to find a way to make coding both exciting and practical for her students at Kenwood Elementary.

But not in the ways they might expect or anticipate. In her students’ minds, coding and the gaming world seem to go hand-in-hand.

“I think with Volition being in town, our students think, ‘Oh, programming is gaming,’” the computer science instructional coach said. “(We said), ‘Let’s try to find something else outside of the video game world that is still exciting and entertaining.’”

So Dunn reached out to iLuminate, the third-place finisher on “America’s Got Talent” in 2011. The dance group wears full-body suits with light panels, which are programmed to light up and flash different colors.

In the years since appearing on the NBC talent show, iLuminate has come to schools to talk about the coding and mechanics that go into their production.

So on Monday, with the whole student body stuffed in the cafeteria and the lights turned off, dancer Matthew Dobbins burst through the door and put on a show. He and technician Scott Griffith then explained to their students how the lights are coded, and after the presentation, they were able to code the suits themselves.

Griffith hasn’t found it challenging to explain the application of coding to kids, at least as difficult as it might have been a decade or two ago.

“I think the bigger thing with computer science is its similarities to language,” he said. “Kids pick it up without realizing it. If you give them the opportunity to play around and make mistakes, frequently they feel comfortable with it in a way that I, as an adult who came to it later, did not feel comfortable with it.”

Students at Kenwood, for instance, begin learning certain principals of coding through games and puzzles in kindergarten. So even though they’re used to performing for older students, Griffith and Dobbins could rest easy knowing they were speaking the Kenwood students’ language.

“(Dobbins) was like, ‘I was nervous to come here to perform for elementary students. I was worried that this was going to be beyond their head,’” Dunn said.

“He was like, ‘I can only dance for so long, but knowing that this is going to be beyond a dance and more of an instructional walk-through of what we do and how we do it, I feel so much more prepared knowing that your students have this knowledge already.’”