Petaluma programming club making coders out of kids
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.
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.