Petaluma programming club making coders out of kids

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On an unseasonably hot Wednesday afternoon, 18 kids between the ages of 9 and 13 sat in a square of tables with laptops in front of them and a copy of the book “Computational Fairy Tales” by their sides. Despite the heat and lure of video games, they listened to Candace Stump as she asked them to explain an algorithm.

“Something you write that gives direction to something to do something,” one of the kids offered up. And, inevitably, pizza entered the conversation.

Stump, a former software engineer who describes herself as a teacher and a “hacktivist,” was not phased. She deftly incorporated this into the challenge and asked the kids to describe how to build a pizza with an algorithm that included an “if then” and “if else” pattern.

“If pizza’s there, then num num … If else, cry with sadness,” Bobby Blalock, 11, said.

Unless you’re a computer programmer, this might sound like nonsense, but in fact pizza, like video games, is just another tool to teach kids how to write code and, according to Stump, actively participate in ubiquitous technology.

“The iPhone is an oracle,” she said. “We are not invited to take it apart. We just consume it. But we want kids to see themselves as producers, not just consumers.”

Stump believes that by teaching kids to code and, literally, take apart and investigate technology, they can accomplish this goal. Computers are everywhere, she explained, and understanding how they work — “making the invisible visible” — is key to becoming a global citizen and understanding the larger world.

Stump, her husband, Barry, who is also a software engineer, and John Crowley, co-owner of Aqus Cafe and software engineer, all share this philosophy. In fact, they were actively looking for a way to help more kids learn about technology.

Enter CoderDojo, a global movement that started in Ireland in 2011. Crowley, an Irishman who moved to Petaluma over 20 years ago, told the Stumps about the free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. And they all agreed it was a great fit for Petaluma. Using computer languages like Scratch, Python and Javascript, CoderDojo workshops teach kids between the ages of 7 and 17 to code, develop websites, apps and programs with a focus on creativity, self-led learning and mentoring. Each club is set up slightly differently, but all reflect the core principles of the CoderDojo ethos: it’s a free, volunteer-led safe space to be creative with communication and feedback.

The Petaluma club, which has only been meeting for two months, is already approaching its cap of 25 students per session. There are four highly trained software engineers, including Crowley and the Stumps, who dedicate a couple of hours of their time each week to work with kids. Crowley is also Bobby Blalock’s mentor through the nonprofit Mentor Me Petaluma, another community organization that has expressed interest in supporting CoderDojo. As Stump explained, for some kids, the workshop is the only other time they can use a computer other than in school. On the other end of the spectrum, however, there are some in Advanced Placement computer science. But the difference between the two is almost imperceptible, Stump said.

CoderDojo strives to support kids’ creative endeavors however they unfold. If someone wants to code a game, they can do it with “Code Combat” or if they want to create a digital party complete with a dancing girl, octopus and dinosaur, they can code it with Scratch.

As Eloise Neuson, 11, one of two girls at the workshop, said, “You can make whatever you want; that’s why it’s so cool and other people can enjoy it, too.”

Lisa Neuson, Eloise’s mother, said her daughter wants to be a computer programmer for Google someday. Like several other kids in the program, Neuson found out about CoderDojo through her son’s homeschooling network. Not only is it “essential” that kids know the basics of computer programming these days, Neuson said, but it also helps parents like her, who are not computer programmers, understand the basics of the technology that surrounds us, including her daughter’s school-issued Chromebook.

“You’re expected to utilize the technology,” Neuson said, “but you don’t always know how to use it.”

Another important aspect of CoderDojo is that it brings kids together outside of a traditional school setting. As Stump explained, this allows kids with different backgrounds and skill levels to work together. It underlines the idea that everyone has skills and abilities and can collaborate through the equalizing and powerful languages of computer coding.

“Kids are not just a collection of strengths and weaknesses. They’re people,” Stump said. “The goal and the necessity is to create an environment where students can explore their strengths and really take off and that’s going to be different for every student.”

Stump, who home-schools her two sons, ages 9 and 11, believes that CoderDojo is one more way for kids to tailor their education to their individual interests and skills, something she thinks is key in a world where it’s almost impossible for traditional schools to keep up with rapidly changing technology. And because computer science classes are primarily only available in high school, CoderDojo allows younger kids to delve into the subject deeper than they could in school.

“I would never lay this at the foot of teachers,” she said, “but having said that, a big system is slow to change.”

She added that it’s also very difficult to find highly trained software engineers who are willing and able to work in education, especially when they “can make twice as much a mile away in industry.” It’s much easier for them to share their knowledge with kids if they only have to commit to one hour a week.

Additionally, an after-hours class that kids choose to participate in fosters a different level of commitment and provides a “normal” place for technophiles to gather.

“A lot of kids are dying to be in an environment where talking about Python is normal,” Crowley said. “And it doesn’t happen in schools yet.”

Fortunately, Petaluma CoderDojo was able to find a welcoming home at the Petaluma Library.

As Cailin Yeager, a children’s librarian there, said, “Libraries have always been about more than books. They are the hub of the community.”

In fact, helping the community become computer literate is one of their stated goals. From free access to public computers to spring break “maker” classes, the Petaluma Library makes a concerted effort to “bridge the digital divide,” added teen librarian Diana Spaulding. Both librarians agreed that there would probably be demand for CoderDojo at almost every branch of the Sonoma County Library.

As far as Stump is concerned, there could never be too many CoderDojo groups.

“It’s always our goal to build a community resource and, in that sense, I regard all growth as good,” she said.

Because of the high demand, Petaluma CoderDojo is going to implement a registration system through its website. It will continue to be free, but they will cap the class size at 25 and start a waiting list when necessary. Stump also hopes to attract more girls to the program, explaining that mentorship was a key part of her education and career that she would now like to provide. In her view, technology is a “digital playground” that never has too many players. And, continuing on this theme, she said, work should feel like play.

“The more we can do to create a situation where they can discover and learn and have fun,” she said, “the more we have done our job.” for more information.

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