The SAM Blog

The art & science behind our Learn to Code course – How SAM Labs pushed the teaching of Coding to the next level

The art & science behind our Learn to Code course – How SAM Labs pushed the teaching of Coding to the next level

Anna Vaughan, Head of Curriculum at SAM Labs, retraces the 6-month epic into how her and her team, broke the code to a truly unique approach to teaching computational thinking skills.



Meet Sam, she works in Cyber Security and through investigating suspicious activity, finds herself trapped in Cyberspace. Mission Control send her tasks which she tackles using her Cyberscanner, avoiding the evil villain and its evil minion bots. Does this sound like full coverage of Grades 4–8 Computer Science standards?! Well it is! We are thrilled at SAM Labs to be launching at #ISTE19 our brand new Learn to Code course.

The State you work in may not yet have adopted CSTA standards for Computer Science. Even if your district is not yet actively engaging in the teaching and learning of coding and computational thinking, it is important that the journey of know what this means for your students is started sooner rather than later.

What is SAM Labs’ approach to computational thinking?

In defining computational thinking, Jeanette Wing wrote in 2007 “Computational methods and models give us the courage to solve problems and design systems that no one of us would be capable of tackling alone.” Our approach is inherently collaborative, from the hardware where our classroom kits comprise 10 sets to enable small groups of 3 to work together, to the instructional tools in our content such as ‘Think, Pair, Share’ and discussion prompts.

What’s covered in the course?

Every lesson produces a unique program of code with an inbuilt debug to encourage the skill of problem-solving. Our course, covering Grades 4–8, guides both experienced and teachers new to coding confidently through each lesson with a bespoke lesson pack for 50 lessons, comprehensively covering grade requirements. The inclusion of open-ended Chilli Challenges means that differentiated extensions encourage investigation through students building on prior understanding. A suite of short starter lessons have been designed so teachers and students can learn together about the hardware, the software and the character, providing a guide to the course.

What’s covered in each lesson?

Each lesson comprises everything a teacher needs: an in-depth visual lesson plan explaining the code in each program step by step; engaging lesson slides as the main resource of the lesson; a visual step by step for students of the program enabling challenge and support depending on instructional design and a mission journal for students to evidence and extend their learning. This purposeful design of active learning through physical hardware, visual coding on Google’s Workbench and stimulating handouts for students are intended to enable the learning to stick.

What’s unplugged got to do with learning Computer Science?

While computational thinking is easily facilitated by coding, we strongly believe that CT skills should also be developed offline — this has been fundamental to our lesson design and supporting resources. In support of both technical and non-technical teachers, we have created connections between computing concepts and known everyday occurrences through active learning experiences. For example, in our Glossary of computing concepts and keywords, the term ‘variable’ is compared to the price of items in one grocery store which can be compared to the price in another store. Each lesson has unplugged sections which create these links and provide active learning opportunities.

How does physical computing enhance learning?

It is the ‘hands-on experience of coding’ that the National Centre for Women and Information Technology describe as an essential component to creating equity in the discipline, that we have at the heart of our course. Physical computing; the combination of digital and physical is how we believe, curricula should be exposing students to programming. Products increasingly utilize technological functionality, by enabling students to see the physical realization of coding. We are benefitting students in preparation for their adult life.



Why include a character?

We have seen with our STEAM curriculum, where our Blocky character is used as the visual hook, the importance of this aspect of content design. Along with being a visual hook, the character is there to ask pertinent questions or point out key learning points. The positive addition of demonstrating a female coder we believe helps to challenge gender stereotypes of the work of coders and computer scientists through our character Sam.

How does character design support equity for learners?

In 2007, Jansz & Martis conducted a study of gender and race in video games. They wanted to explore the so-called ‘Lara phenomenon’. In the intervening years, much game development has increasingly portrayed female characters as aspirational role models, appealing to both male and female gamers. A ‘strong, and competent female character in a dominant position’ (Jansz & Martin, 2007) was exactly what we were aiming for in the creation of Sam.

How was Sam created?

Our UX/UI designer worked with students as well as sought the opinion of the company and our User Researcher gathered feedback from educators. Jansz & Martis reported on the widespread lack of non-white characters in games. Creating an ethnically agnostic female character was important. In addition to the need to increase positive female characters. We believe Sam can be identifiable for all students. The character along with lesson packs designed to appeal to all learners, we hope will develop exposure of coding and computer science as an area of work for female as well as male students to explore. The latest figures from the Bureau of Labor Statistics show women taking only 18% of the Computer Science degrees awarded a decline in recent years. A statistic we hope can increase through understanding and innovation.

How do we support a strong foundation in computer science and coding?

Our course design has used the CSTA standards to structure the progression across lessons within 5-grade levels. We launch at ISTE with a full course for Grade 4 with supporting materials, to be followed in a month’s time with Grades 5–8. We believe our course provides educators with the tools to realize the ISTE’s Computational Thinking Competencies.

How does Papert fit into our approach?

Seymour Papert described his vision of computers whereby children were actively involved and in control, designing and developing. It is through our lessons that we hope this vision is realized and a problem-solving approach is fostered. Papert’s vision was that children developed a ‘sense of mastery over a piece of the most modern and powerful technology’. Not only beneficial in and of itself, but aids, through ‘intimate contact’, understanding of ‘some of the deepest ideas from science, from mathematics, and from the art of intellectual model building.’

Given educators limited time, we aim to support understanding of how both on and offline computational thinking can and should affect classrooms, content and students. The computational thinking framework, from Brennan and Resnik at the MIT Lab is an interesting development in this regard. Encompassing 3 distinct dimensions: concepts, practices and perspectives, it helps to see the potential of what computational thinking can offer as a key 21st-century skill.

We look forward to connecting and gathering feedback.

For an infographic of 10 Educator Benefits of the Learn to Code course click here.

For more information or to request a demo please click here.