Kids are learning the language of computers

  • Article by: KATIE HUMPHREY , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 2, 2013 - 12:43 PM

A push to teach kids computer programming – for future jobs and 21st-century literacy – is gaining momentum.

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Move over Spanish, French and Chinese.

A new set of languages, with names like Python, Ruby and Java, are on the rise.

In an age when technology plays an increasing role in everyone’s lives, there’s a growing movement nationally and in the Twin Cities to teach kids how to talk to computers.

Yet the lessons, for the most part, aren’t coming in school classrooms but through tablet apps, website tutorials and weekend workshops. Tech companies, in particular, are clamoring for more kids to learn computer coding, even opening their offices to teach the youngsters who may one day apply for jobs.

“Coding is the new language. Coding is the new literacy,” said Jocelyn Leavitt, CEO and co-founder of Hopscotch, an iPad app that aims to teach code to kids.

Nonprofit Code.org says that over the next 10 years there will be 1.4 million jobs in computer science, but just 400,000 qualified graduates. Yet it’s a skill, proponents say, that will even benefit kids who don’t grow up to be computer programmers.

“It’s kind of like looking under the hood of your car,” said Rebecca Schatz, founder of Code Savvy, a new Twin Cities nonprofit focused on helping kids learn computer programming. “It doesn’t mean you want to be a mechanic. It means you’re not moving in a world of magic and mystery.”

Jaiden Julson, 11, was trying to unlock that digital world at a recent session of CoderDojo Twin Cities.

“This is definitely not easy to do,” she said from her perch at a high table in the vibrant offices of Clockwork Active Media Systems in northeast Minneapolis. “It’s going to take a while.”

To the uninitiated, code looks like strings of numbers, punctuation and words. Altogether it might as well spell confusion. In order to teach kids these languages, apps and online games use movable color-coded blocks and animation to introduce the logic needed to communicate with computers.

Despite Julson’s initial hesitation, it took her only about 15 minutes to figure out some basics in Scratch, the intro-to-coding program she fiddled with at CoderDojo. Arranging a rainbow array of blocks that represent different coding functions — move, play, repeat — she made an animated character move to the short tune she composed.

“Whoa! There’s all this stuff you can do with animation and I can do it,” she said. “It’s cool.”

The free CoderDojo workshops, launched this spring and held every few weeks, draw 30 to 40 kids, ages 8 to 17. They cluster in groups to play with different programming languages, doing everything from basic animation to Web design under the guidance of mentors who work in the Twin Cities tech community.

“There’s an untapped reservoir of interest among young people who want to learn this stuff but aren’t necessarily getting this in school,” said Matt Gray, vice president of technology at Clockwork and an organizer of CoderDojo Twin Cities.

Currently, most formal computer programming education comes in college for those who study science, math and technology.

But in an era when there’s an app for almost everything, basic knowledge of coding — even in seemingly non-tech fields — goes a long way. Need an app for real estate or want to build a website for a business? Someone with coding skills can do it.

“I don’t think every person in the country needs to be a programmer, but it is increasingly becoming necessary to have enough tech literacy to participate and compete in the workforce,” Gray said.

In a video on the Code.org website, people as varied as Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, NBA star Chris Bosh and musician will.i.am urge kids to learn coding.

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  • Jaiden Julson, 11, of Brooklyn Park concentrated on adding music to her animation project in Scratch during a CoderDojo workshop held recently at Clockwork Active Media Systems in Minneapolis.

  • CoderDojo Twin Cities

    Kids get a chance to play with computer programming with guidance from mentors, many of them professional programmers and engineers. The events are free, but registration is required and space is limited. The next CoderDojo TC is Aug. 24. Tickets will be available online Aug. 11. For more information, check out www.coderdojotc.org.

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