Local programs teach kids to code

Kids are paired up with “gurus” to work on coding projects through Google’s new CS First program. (Photo/Gary Coleman)
Kids are paired up with “gurus” to work on coding projects through Google’s new CS First program. (Photo/Gary Coleman)

By Liz Segrist
lsegrist@scbiznews.com
Published July 1, 2014

Kids as young as age 6 are learning to code in the Lowcountry.

Coding schools have opened around the country in recent years in an effort to train more computer programmers for the booming tech sector, as well as to expose kids to the STEM fields at a younger age.

In the Lowcountry, Google’s CS First taught more than 1,200 kids to code last year through an after-school program offered in the tri-county area. In Mount Pleasant, The Iron Yard held a monthlong kids coding camp this summer, and Charleston CoderDojo offers a year-round, freestyle coding club for kids. YoCode launched as a pilot program last year at a school in Berkeley County.

These coding schools have some common themes. Volunteers — often professional coders from the local tech community — help teach the students. The course curricula provide specific coding projects, like building a game or an animation, but also allow for kids to work on projects that interest them.

Many of the curricula use Scratch, an online program that lets users create interactive games, stories and animations and then share them with others in an online community.

These curricula help kids figure out whether they like programming, and whether it’s something they would want to pursue as a career, well before college demands them to choose a major.

“The ideal goal is to expose as many kids as possible to the craft of programming so that they learn if they want to do it — and if so, they have a pathway to thrive in,” said Tom Wilson, founder of Charleston CoderDojo. “If they don’t like it, the worse case is they just learned a different way of thinking.”

The majority of computer programmers or software engineers realized they were interested in the field when they were between 10 and 14 years old, said Wilson, also president of Jack Russell Software Co.

Coding programs can introduce kids to the tech world, especially for those who might not be exposed to coding otherwise, such as girls, blacks and Hispanics, who are disproportionately represented in the sector.

Many coding programs work with schools to offer classes during school hours or as after-school programs to get kids interested at an earlier age. Some educators and tech experts promote inclusion of coding as a core subject in school.

Code.org is a national effort to introduce coding at a younger age by incorporating it into schools’ curricula alongside math, literature and history.

Major tech players like Google and Amazon, as well as Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, are backing the nonprofit. Some 20,000 teachers have adopted the curriculum nationwide.

“In schools, there are a lot of external activities for kids to go play baseball or go to the chess club, but there’s not really a place where they can go and do computer stuff,” Wilson said.

Google’s CS First booms

Google launched an after-school coding course, CS First, last year in the Lowcountry for fourth- through eighth-graders.

The program, which focuses mostly on middle school, taught more than 1,200 students in Charleston, Dorchester and Berkeley counties. CS First teaching fellows, employed by Google, worked with school districts to implement the program at area schools.

“This is our chance to capture students before they head off to high schools,” said Kate Berrio, program manager of CS First. “Our goals are to engage them and inspire them to find a sense of belonging in the world of tech.”

CS First students work on a specific project each session. They watch Google’s how-to videos and work with Scratch alongside their “gurus,” who are volunteers with the program.

Some projects involve making a game, a music video or an art project. The projects have different themes — such as sports, social, music, fashion and art — to entice kids with different interests. Two coders could be working on the same project, but the main character could be a football player or a princess.

As the students play with the code, they can see the changes to their projects in real-time, said Taylor Green, one of the 14 computer science teaching fellows Google hired to create the curriculum.

“Sometimes we see pure excitement as the kids see different colors and movements as they see how their code works,” Green said. “Sometimes we see frustration if a kid didn’t listen or is hung up with the code, so we work with them to figure it out.”

During each session, students go around the room and showcase their projects from the day. They cheer each other on and talk about what worked and what they learned.

“When the students have their headphones on watching the video instructions and coding, the room goes silent, but then, that’s broken up by someone announcing ‘Finally, I did it’ or ‘Coooooool,’” said Jamie Sue Goodman, the technical program manager.

Nearly 80 volunteers use Google’s classroom script and online tools to work with the students on their coding projects.

BoomTown recently partnered with Google to provide volunteers and offer tours of its downtown Charleston office. Google is recruiting more gurus for the 2014-2015 program.

Google plans to expand the program throughout South Carolina and the Southeast. It also recently launched a pilot program in San Francisco, Berrio said.

Coding clubs

Around 40 kids pile into the Jack Russell Software office in Mount Pleasant each month, grab some pizza and code together on their laptops. Mentors work with the kids, ages 6 to 15, on specific projects or hang out while they try out a new concept on their own.

One girl, 13, created her own website dedicated to bananas and asked to learn Python programming. One boy wrote a paper for his class about how he plans to be a developer. All of the kids are excited when they come.

Wilson said the key is to break down the traditional classroom model. Kids lose their attention span if they are sitting in a classroom environment for more than an hour, and CoderDojo enables kids to decide what to focus on and when, he said.

“Coding is supposed to be fun,” Wilson said.

YoArt, a nonprofit that brings enrichment programs like media arts to local schools, launched YoCode for kids last year. Tommy Taylor, a programmer who spent 20 years programming for SCRA, taught 30 seventh-graders to code at Marrington Middle School of the Arts in Berkeley County.

He created the courses and worked hands-on with the kids to complete each project, using puzzles, games or animations.

Taylor reiterated the kids’ enthusiasm from seeing the results instantly.

“Kids are actually writing the code in my class. As they type in the code in different sections, they can see their product or game change in real time,” Taylor said. “They can see the results from the code that they have written. I can’t tell you how excited that makes them.”

Gene Furchgott, executive director of YoArt, is planning to expand YoCode to four other Charleston schools.

“These kids are learning the syntax of coding and how it integrates with math, but it also helps them think outside of the box,” Furchgott said.

The Charleston Digital Corridor has had more than 500 adults take courses through CodeCamp, according to Executive Director Ernest Andrade, who is considering implementing coding courses for kids in the future.

The Iron Yard hosted a coding camp for kids in Mount Pleasant last month. Kids ages 7 to 12 built a Frogger-type video game on Scratch.

“We want to let them see what it’s like and expose them to the idea of software programming as a potential career,” said Sally Kingston, campus director of The Iron Yard in Charleston. “Some may pursue that as a career and some may not, but we’re getting it out there for them.”

Reach staff writer Liz Segrist at 843-849-3119 or @lizsegrist on Twitter.

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