Beginning in November of last year, a group of kids ages 11-14 started meeting at the library once a week after school as part of a new program, <HPLCode>, which is part of my library’s <M2M> or Makers2Mentors initiative. (Read general information about the initiative and Libraries Ready to Code here.) In years past, we’ve offered intros to coding, Hour of Code sessions, a web design series and a week long coding camp (thanks to a grad student at Carnegie Melon’s Entertainment Technology program), but we have never offered a program that allows kids to delve deeper into coding, computer science and computational thinking; particularly programs specifically for ages 11-14 (middle schoolers). We decided to offer the <HPLCode> program for a few reasons.
- We recognized that understanding both Computational Thinking (CT) and Computer Science (CS) concepts is part of literacy in the Digital Age. With CS and CT skills, kids would be better prepared for the work force that lies ahead regardless of the field or occupation they choose.
- There are no computer science courses offered through area schools. I recognized a void that the library could help fill.
- The kids who have regularly attended the Maker Club and LEGO Club events (for 8-12 year olds) were aging out and expressing interest in other opportunities to keep making and creating using digital tools.
The first part of <HPLCode> ran for 7 weeks. 5 weeks included “formal” instruction (led by me with the help of video tutorials) followed by free play, tween style, inspired by a particular concept. The goals of the program were:
- introduce key CS concepts common across programming languages and provide opportunities for kids to apply those concepts
- provide a new social experience for kids interested in Computer Science; connect kids from different schools and friend groups
- attract more and different kids to the library, including those underrepresented in formal library programs
- connect kids to CS professionals with a connection to Alaska
- offer a CS program that allowed kids to help mold its design
- broaden after school ‘making’ opportunities for kids older than 12
- make accessible the opportunity for kids to create a digital project that addressed a problem in their life or in the community
- test the program prototype for the Libraries Ready to Code project
When: Thursdays, 4-5:30 (extended to 4-6 based on kids’ requests) November 2 – Dec 21 (except for Thanksgiving Day)
Who: Kids ages 11-14 (primarily 11-12 years)
Where: Library’s meeting room which offers conference style seating, dry erase board for drawing/planning, and a large monitor for projecting slides, teaching videos, Skype video for expert interviews, and group work
CS Concepts: Algorithms, Functions, Variables, Loops, Conditionals, Events
Computational Thinking Concepts and Ideas: Abstraction, Decomposition, and Pattern Recognition, Debugging and Problem Solving, Prototyping, Feeling connected to the broader CS community
Equipment and Materials: Chromebooks, micro:bits, Scratch challenge cards, large monitor for projecting slides or video, flash drives for each and ear buds or headphones for each (provided by Friends group) with splitters to foster shared projects, paper/pencils for storyboarding, designing and problem solving, snacks
Staffing: Myself and one local high school mentor with previous programming and game design experience
- We received notice about LRtC participation and the grant award at the end of October. The grant funding was needed to move ahead with <HPLCode> as planned so up until then, the program was only tentative. We were able to go ahead with the dates and got to work with last minute advertising. We attracted several kids (4-7), all who had not participated in formal library programs before. The group size actually allowed for me to work out some of the planning bugs as we proceeded with the program plan. it was a prototype. For example, the kids were on the younger end of the range and less experienced with maker projects and coding in general. We spread out the CS concepts over the 7-week program and spent more time with each concept than initially anticipated.
- The majority of the small group, which grew from 4 to 7, participated each week and continued with the follow up program after the Winter Break (<HPLCode> Lab), allowing for deeper exploration and practice of CS concepts.
- I found a high school student to help with the program who will continue to act as a teen mentor during the Makers2Mentors initiative. His participation continues a legacy of integrating high school students interested in STEM careers as leaders for youth programming. These mentors help us extend program reach and support their growth as young adults.
- While we started the program using Code.org’s App Lab and Game Lab (remixing pre-made apps and creating choose your own adventure apps) because of the nice selection of associated video tutorials found in the various curriculum, kids ultimately wanted to use Scratch for their projects. That was fine with me because one of the program’s intended outcomes was to get input from the participating kids and offer them the opportunity to help mold this prototype program and the next iteration. I was clear from the beginning that this program was an experiment and I needed their help defining it.
- I introduced a Mini Design Challenge during the 6th and 7th week of the <HPLCode> portion of the program to spark project ideas using the resources we had available. Kids loved this and immediately got to work. They helped define the must-have elements for the challenge projects.
- The program’s teen mentor entered and won the Congressional App Challenge for Alaska after I connected with him initially about helping <HPLCode> and then sent him info about the national challenge.
- An issue with access to Scratch (see below) initiated a conversation about digital citizenship, respectful participation in the Scratch community and responsible game design.
- Interviews with CS professionals introduced kids to ‘start ups’, the different jobs available in the world of CS, and online communities like GitHub where they can participate and develop their skills beyond the library program, even in communities outside the traditional tech hubs.
- The code.org curriculum options beyond Hour of Code are extensive, but I couldn’t quite find one that fit my age range, length of program, topics and learning environment exactly. They seem best suited for a classroom experience where kids are with the educator everyday or meet regularly over a long period. All of the curriculum included the concepts I wanted to introduce but they were taught amidst other concepts or ideas (how the internet works, for example) that I didn’t have time to include.
- The program attracted less kids than I had hoped and only 1 or 2 girls, depending on the week. Beyond gender, the program did attract a diverse group of kids all of whom had not participated in library programs before. (I am offering a Girls Code one-off program in February to try a different approach to connecting girls with CS/CT. I am also working with the local Girl Scouts troops on an overnight event for girls related to the new badges focused on CS and robotics.)
- The kids had minimal coding experience and had not participated in the library’s maker programs, in particular, so they were less familiar with CT in practice, with me or the other kids. It took some time to get comfortable with each other and figure out their interests and experience.
- The kids who attended were younger than I had anticipated (11-12 mostly) and either had a project in mind that was beyond the resources we had available or had no project in mind. We developed the Mini Design Challenge for week 6 and 7 to address this (see above.)
- We weren’t able to order and receive the Chromebooks until 4 weeks into the program (because of a funding delay), so we had to borrow Chromebooks from another city department for the first part of the program.
- When the kids wanted to switch to Scratch, we discovered that our library’s IP address had been blocked by Scratch for violations of the Scratch Community Guidelines. City IT staff helped us with a temporary solution between program sessions while we contacted the Scratch team about the issue. We discovered that someone using our public computers or wifi had posted ‘flirtatious’ and inappropriate comments about a project and once blocked had tried to create a new account with the same email. We worked with the Scratch team to get our address unblocked and discussed the guidelines and digital citizenship at <HPLCode> the following week.
- The teen mentor has programming experience, but wasn’t comfortable talking in front of the group formally, I discovered after we started the program. I was initially expecting him to co-teach with me, filling in my knowledge gaps, but that didn’t work out. Towards the end of the 7 weeks, we finally figured out what role was a good fit for him and he worked best as a near peer mentor. He was happy with that, but it meant more work for me learning and preparing for each session. I will have clearer job descriptions and expectations in the future.
In January when school was back in session, we began phase 2 of this program, <HPLCode> Lab. The idea behind this portion of the program was to offer kids equipment, space and support to continue working on their mini design challenge or try something new. Other kids were welcome to join if they had some coding experience. More on this piece when it finishes in early February.