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‘Nobody does science without code’

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By Wren Propp

The new chief of Los Alamos National Laboratory brought along something incredibly old Friday to demonstrate the usefulness of learning something new to a sixth-grade class Friday in Los Alamos.

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A chunk of black quartz crystal collected on the 14,000-foot Pikes Peak is a billion years old, and only in the age of calculations from computers could he know that, Terry Wallace told Brett Hawkins’ class at Mountain Elementary.

Wallace, with a Ph.D in geophysics from California Institute of Technology and the recently named director of the national laboratory, told students participating in a global event this week called an Hour of Code – where students at all grade levels focus on computer coding – that determining the age of his shiny rock wasn’t possible without computer coding.

“I don’t know how to do that problem on paper…Nobody does science without code,” Wallace told the students.
He was introduced to mathematics as a student growing up in Los Alamos, and learned to “think in equations,” he said.
An introduction to coding – through games such as Minecraft and one based on the characters in “Star Wars” – will help them, Wallace said.

Students at the eight schools in the Los Alamos Public School district participated in the weeklong event, where students in kindergarten through 12th grade were introduced to coding, said Superintendent Kurt Steinhaus said.

At Mountain Elementary, 37 scientists from LANL have visited classrooms throughout the week, said school representatives.

One focus of the weeklong coding introduction – with nearly 500 million people participating as of Friday morning – is to give girls and young women opportunities to learn coding.

“They really enjoy the more feminine games, like `Moana.’ It’s good, because girls and boys have different games,” said special education teacher Zeynap Unal, organizer of the annual event at Mountain School.

After Wallace spoke, three representatives from the laboratory’s High Performance Computing Division, introduced a video on the wide range of applications for coding to help solve social, as well as scientific, problems.

Learning to code is compared to knowing how to read, a type of literacy that is likely to become more and more necessary, according sources in a brief video presented by the HPC Division representatives, Tess Huelskamp, Heather Huynh and Janeth Quijada.

Before the session, they said they had been working in classrooms this week in support of the Hour of Code effort. They wanted to participate – especially in light of its focus on opening up coding opportunities to women and girls.

LAPS Board Member Ellen Ben-Naim also attended the session.

“I think it’s a wonderful opportunity for girls and boys, but especially for girls,” she said.