Coder Dojo: Kids Teaching Themselves Programming (Shallow Thoughts)

Akkana's Musings on Open Source Computing and Technology, Science, and Nature.

Fri, 24 Feb 2017

Coder Dojo: Kids Teaching Themselves Programming

We have a terrific new program going on at Los Alamos Makers: a weekly Coder Dojo for kids, 6-7 on Tuesday nights.

Coder Dojo is a worldwide movement, and our local dojo is based on their ideas. Kids work on programming projects to earn colored USB wristbelts, with the requirements for belts getting progressively harder. Volunteer mentors are on hand to help, but we're not lecturing or teaching, just coaching.

Despite not much advertising, word has gotten around and we typically have 5-7 kids on Dojo nights, enough that all the makerspace's Raspberry Pi workstations are filled and we sometimes have to scrounge for more machines for the kids who don't bring their own laptops.

A fun moment early on came when we had a mentor meeting, and Neil, our head organizer (who deserves most of the credit for making this program work so well), looked around and said "One thing that might be good at some point is to get more men involved." Sure enough -- he was the only man in the room! For whatever reason, most of the programmers who have gotten involved have been women. A refreshing change from the usual programming group. (Come to think of it, the PEEC web development team is three women. A girl could get a skewed idea of gender demographics, living here.) The kids who come to program are about 40% girls.

I wondered at the beginning how it would work, with no lectures or formal programs. Would the kids just sit passively, waiting to be spoon fed? How would they get concepts like loops and conditionals and functions without someone actively teaching them?

It wasn't a problem. A few kids have some prior programming practice, and they help the others. Kids as young as 9 with no previous programming experience walk it, sit down at a Raspberry Pi station, and after five minutes of being shown how to bring up a Python console and use Python's turtle graphics module to draw a line and turn a corner, they're happily typing away, experimenting and making Python draw great colorful shapes.

Python-turtle turns out to be a wonderful way for beginners to learn. It's easy to get started, it makes pretty pictures, and yet, since it's Python, it's not just training wheels: kids are using a real programming language from the start, and they can search the web and find lots of helpful examples when they're trying to figure out how to do something new (just like professional programmers do. :-)

Initially we set easy requirements for the first (white) belt: attend for three weeks, learn the names of other Dojo members. We didn't require any actual programming until the second (yellow) belt, which required writing a program with two of three elements: a conditional, a loop, a function.

That plan went out the window at the end of the first evening, when two kids had already fulfilled the yellow belt requirements ... even though they were still two weeks away from the attendance requirement for the white belt. One of them had never programmed before. We've since scrapped the attendance belt, and now the white belt has the conditional/loop/function requirement that used to be the yellow belt.

The program has been going for a bit over three months now. We've awarded lots of white belts and a handful of yellows (three new ones just this week). Although most of the kids are working in Python, there are also several playing music or running LED strips using Arduino/C++, writing games and web pages in Javascript, writing adventure games Scratch, or just working through Khan Academy lectures.

When someone is ready for a belt, they present their program to everyone in the room and people ask questions about it: what does that line do? Which part of the program does that? How did you figure out that part? Then the mentors review the code over the next week, and they get the belt the following week.

For all but the first belt, helping newer members is a requirement, though I suspect even without that they'd be helping each other. Sit a first-timer next to someone who's typing away at a Python program and watch the magic happen. Sometimes it feels almost superfluous being a mentor. We chat with the kids and each other, work on our own projects, shoulder-surf, and wait for someone to ask for help with harder problems.

Overall, a terrific program, and our only problems now are getting funding for more belts and more workstations as the word spreads and our Dojo nights get more crowded. I've had several adults ask me if there was a comparable program for adults. Maybe some day (I hope).

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[ 13:46 Feb 24, 2017    More programming | permalink to this entry | comments ]
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