July 27, 2017

CODEcamp Kids Hits Its Stride

Ashley Fletcher Frampton  /  Charleston Digital News
CODEcamp Kids in sessionCODEcamp Kids in session
CODEcampers  visit Wave Sciences CorporationCODEcampers visit Wave Sciences Corporation
Graduation DayGraduation Day
CODEcamp Kids slinging codeCODEcamp Kids slinging code
CODEcampers visit Telemedicine startup, ZeriscopeCODEcampers visit Telemedicine startup, Zeriscope
CODEcamp Educators - Darren Michaels and Kathryn BrockmannCODEcamp Educators - Darren Michaels and Kathryn Brockmann

Fourteen middle school students sit behind Chromebook-lined tables in a conference room. A few can barely see over the top of the computer. This diverse group of students from across the Lowcountry are participating in a summer session of CODEcamp Kids, a program offered by the Charleston Digital Corridor that teaches the basics of web development.

By week's end, the students, ages 10 to 14, learned to build their own webpages, construct hyperlinked mazes and create Magic 8 Ball applications that answer questions. "They're typing every single thing out," said Katy Brockmann, one of two Moultrie Middle School science educators who lead the camp.

That's different from other coding programs where students use shortcuts, dragging and dropping blocks of code. "You have to tell this over here that it connects with that, and if you spell this wrong here, it's going to mess up over there," Brockmann said. "It's a lot. It's hard."

Brockmann and co-teacher Darren Michaels call this Version 2.0 of CODEcamp Kids. It's gone through several iterations since last summer, when they came on board, and several more before that.

As Brockmann and Michaels prepare to teach the after school program at Moultrie Middle for a second school year, they say the curriculum is ready to scale if other teachers and schools are willing to step forward to learn and teach it.

Teachers in training

CODEcamp Kids is an offshoot of the adult version of the program, which the Charleston Digital Corridor began offering in 2012. The program for middle schoolers began in 2015 and was first taught at the Charleston Digital Corridor's downtown Flagship by professional software developers.

Both the adult and student CODEcamps are designed to prepare workers in the Lowcountry for the growing number of local technology jobs.

"Traditionally we have imported workers," said Ernest Andrade, Director of the Charleston Digital Corridor Foundation. "We need programs to train those already here."

Andrade said he began the program for students because he saw a gap in school curriculum.

Brockmann and Michaels joined the effort last summer. They brought to the table their experience teaching the camp's target age group. Their involvement also enabled the Charleston Digital Corridor to offer a pilot program on weekdays after school on the campus of Moultrie Middle, making it more convenient for students and parents.

What Brockmann and Michaels did not bring was a prior experience of coding. Both volunteered to teach the course knowing they had to get up to speed on a complicated subject in a short time frame.

They spent two long days last summer in a sort of boot camp with the existing CODEcamp Kids team. They describe the training as overwhelming, involving 89 lines of code in a single day.

"We had no idea what we were doing," Brockmann said.

"Our heads were spinning last year this time," Michaels added.

You wouldn't know it to see them teaching this summer. They present the building blocks of HTML, CSS and Javascript in terms accessible to young beginners. They bounce seamlessly between instruction and assistance, keeping students on track and interested. They anticipate questions before students ask, but also encourage them to rely on one another or to find answers using online resources.

Andrade said Brockmann and Michaels have been instrumental to the program's success. He has worked with them to fine-tune the program based on student and parent feedback over the past year. For example, after a 12-week program last Fall, the team decided on two shorter eight-week sessions this past spring.

"The ultimate goal is to expand the CODEcamp Kids After School program to schools beyond Moultrie Middle to reach more students," Andrade said. "But a challenge is finding teachers who are willing to learn to code and take on the extra hours even though they are competitively compensated."

A 2016 report by Google and Gallup on computer science and coding education in public schools nationwide cited the lack of qualified teachers as a significant barrier to offering such courses. The survey also found that many schools lack money to train teachers, having to devote their resources to testing requirements. To overcome the money issue, the Charleston Digital Corridor funds the training through their iFiveK fundraising event, in addition to investments from enlightened businesses and individuals in the community.

CODEcamp Kids is funded by the Charleston Digital Corridor, a public-private partnership, and by the tuition that students pay. Tuition for the weeklong summer camp, which runs for three hours a day, is $195. The After School program, an hour-and-a-half course that runs Monday through Wednesday for eight weeks, costs $595. Essentially, the valuable code education program is just a few dollars over the price of most after school activities.

A start at Moultrie Middle

Moultrie Middle School became the first site for the CODEcamp Kids After School program in part because of teachers' and administrators' rising interest in teaching coding.

Anna Dassing, who was principal at Moultrie Middle at the time, said she and the school's teachers had been asking themselves whether they were preparing students for the world in which they will live.

"Again and again and again, coding came up," said Dassing, now principal of Lucy Beckham High School, planned to open in 2020 in Mount Pleasant.

Dassing said the focus of school computer courses has long been computer applications – like keyboarding and Microsoft Excel – rather than computer programming.

"Middle school is a crucial time for students to begin exploring coding," said Millibeth Currie, chair of the science department at Moultrie Middle School. "When students register for high school classes, the options are extensive."

"You can't do it all," Currie said. "If they don't even have it on their radar, they are not going to register and take any of those coding classes. They just won't."

Since 2001, Currie has led a program called Women in Charge, which encourages middle school girls to pursue science, mathematics and technology. The Charleston Digital Corridor supports the Women in Charge initiative at Moultrie Middle, and that connection paved the way for the school to be the first after school site for CODEcamp Kids.

"Ernest was looking for a place to plant the seed, and Moultrie just happened to be a really good, fertile ground for it," Dassing said.

Dassing and Currie say schools should institute coding as part of middle school curriculum. "That's what needs to happen," Currie said. "That's what the workforce is saying. They are begging us, 'Please, introduce this earlier.'"

For the time being, the tuition-based CODEcamp Kids is a good starting point, they said. "I think sometimes you have to go slower in order to go faster later," Dassing said.

Pioneering the course

Brockmann and Michaels say the fine-tuning of the program over the past year should make it easier to recruit and train new teachers in the future. They have revised the curriculum based on what's worked best, and a new software platform has improved the flow. They would train teachers the way they now teach the students, they said.

The expertise that the pair has developed with the course didn't come overnight.

They describe last fall's pilot program as a learn-as-you-go effort, with hours spent in the evenings preparing to teach the next afternoon's camp. They recall weekend meetings to iron out kinks and frantic troubleshooting messages sent to each other during the school day. "Here she was trying to teach, and I'm like, 'Katy, we are on in two hours. How are we going to get this down?'" Michaels said.

What drew the teachers to the extra assignment?

Michaels said he jumped at the chance to learn something different. "Most teachers could go in and teach 15 or 30 years of the same subject. That freaks me out," said Michaels, whose regular courses include robotics, forensics and flight and space. "Every two or three years, I need something new."

For Brockmann, it was the money.

"I was like, 'I'm not making it as a teacher. I have to make ends meet,'" said Brockmann, whose courses include robotics and civil engineering. "And this opportunity for a $40-an-hour, extra kind of thing came up in an email from our head of the science department."

Brockmann and Michaels say any teacher could lead a CODEcamp Kids session – not just science teachers. "As long as they have the passion for it and they are committed, I think anyone can teach it," Brockmann said.

Program's reach

Last fall, 14 students participated in the CODEcamp Kids After School program at Moultrie Middle School, and 11 were on a waitlist. Two shorter sessions in the spring brought a total of 17 more students.

Two summer camp sessions in July, held at the Charleston Digital Corridor's downtown Flagship building, saw a total of 21 middle school students. "CODEcamp Kids exceeded our expectations and hopes. Our daughter thoroughly enjoyed the program, learned a great deal and continues to learn by using some of the online software recommended by the friendly and engaging educators," said Melinda D.

Brockmann and Michaels plan another fall semester of CODEcamp Kids After School at Moultrie Middle. The program is open to students from other middle schools.

"At this age, children are not afraid of computers," Michaels said. "Some are more comfortable on computers than holding a pen and paper, and more comfortable with technology than their parents."

"Don't be afraid to do this," he added. "Instead of playing with the apps, instead of playing the video games, you could actually learn how to make them."