Kids’ STEM Workshop: Binary Code!

We live in a binary world. Our computers, music, books, magazines, almost every form of media is digital and it all runs on the binary code. But, it is surprising how little many of us understand about the code that influences so much of our lives. For Teen Tech Week in March 2017, I wanted to do a program for tweens on coding and showing them the binary system. But, is binary code easy enough for kids to understand and write? Can we do a coding program without a computer? As we found out, the answers are yes, and yes!

Little Bins for Little Hands blog has a wonderful post on teaching kids, even young kids, the binary code. They also have a handy alphabet page in Binary Code (see downloads at the end of this post). Their post brought me to Kids, code, and Computer Science which has a great explanation of computer coding using binary. I am a visual learner, and I found the YouTube video, “Binary – Coding & Computing – How it Works – The 2 Minute Lesson – 1990s” very helpful! Finally, a treasure trove of STEM resources is available through StarNet. They had a wonderful lesson plan that helped me fill in all the goals I wanted for this program-an explanation of binary, a way to explain it for kids, and an activity for kids to do on their own.   A link on their Binary Code lesson plan took me to CS Unplugged.  I found an entire lesson plan on the binary system that was easily adapted for our library. They also included this pdf lesson guide sheet: Instructions for Binary Numbers!

Cost and Supplies:
We offered this program for $0. We had all the supplies already on hand!

Room set up:

I printed off the Binary Alphabet Code Sheet (see Downloads at the end of this post), as well as the Binary Coding Worksheet (see Downloads at the end of this post) put together from “Playdough to Plato” for each child. I had made a deck of six binary cards for the kids, having enough card decks for the kids to work in teams to two (Card in deck had dots where each card had twice as many dots as the card before it: 1 dot, 2 dots, 4 dots, 8 dots, 16 dots, and 32 dots). I set up four tables in kind of a square around the room for the kids to work.

Time Needed:
This was a 45 minute-1 hour program, although it could be cut shorter is needed by making some of the activities shorter, or by leaving them out altogether.

BinaryAlphabet and Binary Code Worksheet

How it went:
We began by talking about the binary code and how it is made up of 0s and 1s. That is it! 0 represents off, and 1 represents on. I showed them the two-minute video on YouTube reference above on binary code, and then I asked them to share with me one thing that they heard in the video.

Next, we began to follow along with the Worksheet Activity from CS Unplugged: Binary Numbers. I had five children volunteer, and they stood up in front of the class. I gave each of them one of my cards, which was an 8.5” x 11” sheet of paper with dots of it (Cards had 1 dot, 2 dots, 4 dots, 8 dots, and 16 dots). The kids each held one card, with the card with one dot being on the far right. To begin, all the kids turn their cards over so the dots were not showing (when we do not see the dots, this represents off, or 0). Then, we worked as a group to create the number 1 (turn the far right card up so it shows one dot, the rest of the cards are blank. In binary, this will be 00001. How do we make 2? (Turn the second card to the right over, and turn off the card representing 1. In binary, this will be 00010). How do we make 5? (Turn the card with four dots over, and the card with 1 dot over so the dots are showing, the other cards are blank. In binary, this is 00101.)

Binary Code for the number 5 (00101).

At first, the kids were confused. By the time we got to five, they realized the pattern, and we counted up until 31!

I then had the kids make teams of two, and I gave them a pack of cards with the same dot patterns. I asked them to work together to write all the numbers 1-31. This only took about 5 minutes.

Then, I told the kids that we were going to write letters and words in binary code. I gave each child the alphabet sheet, and the Binary Coding Sheet and a crayon. Using the alphabet key, I asked them to solve the code, using binary to write out the words on the Coding Sheet. This also only took about 5 minutes.

After they were done, I told them to hang on to their alphabet sheet. I took out the Perler beads, and pipe cleaners. Each child was able to pick what color of pipe cleaner they wanted, and I spooned out some perler beads on small trays on each table. I told the kids to choose two colors of beads. One color would represent 0. The second color would represent the 1. Using their code, the kids wrote out their name in binary code using the beads and the pipe cleaner. When they were done, most of the kids turned their pipe cleaner into a bracelet.

I also saw an idea to do this using pony beads. However, those seemed to be more expensive. Also, using the much smaller Perler beads was good fine motor skills practice!

This was an amazing program. I was really impressed how well it turned out. Having the cards and working with the binary code helped the kids realize that the binary code is not very hard to understand. Then, having them write their name using the pipe cleaner and beads allowed them to make a very cool craft. One little girl even made me a crown by coding the first initial of my first name E and the first initial of my last name (Z)!

The whole point of this program was to show kids a tiny taste of binary code, and to show them how it worked so they would not be afraid to do more activities on their own. One student asked for a book on how to create websites from code before he left the library after this program, so I think it worked!

Happy STEMing!


BinaryAlphabet (Credit: Little Buns for Little Hands)
Binary Code Worksheet (Credit: Playdough to Plato)
Binary Lesson Plan -CS Unplugged (Credit: CS Unplugged)


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