“What is a variable?” — Some seven or eight hands of keen fifth graders perk up in the air, signaling they have been paying attention. “It’s a string or a number,” says one of the girls. “It varies,” adds another witty one. “How about a loop? Does anybody remember what a loop is?” continues the instructor.
I popped into class at Maple Ridge Elementary while they were doing a short recap of what they learned at KidsCode. Taught by volunteers at technology companies in the Silicon Slopes of the Utah Valley, the program has taken over 1,500 local kids through the Code.org and Scratch curriculums.
I can’t remember much of the coding I learned in my short time getting familiar with the concept– I do however remember the mechanics of loops got in the way of becoming the new Ada Lovelace. No matter where I put the brackets and semicolons, the result was always the same.
The computer would make a whirring sound from the depth of its silicon insides and just grind to a halt before depressingly announcing it has stopped trying to compute the infinite sequence of actions I mistakenly told it to perform.
“You can use a loop when you need to do the same thing over and over again,” says one perceptive fifth grader.
Am I green with envy, or is it just the XANT T-shirt I’m wearing while covering the Do Good Foundation KidsCode activities? They didn’t teach us this in school.
Closing the Skill Gap with a Public-Private Partnership
The disconnect between skills taught in school and the needs of employers is a real issue affecting not only the Silicon Slopes area– but the entire US. An estimated 1 million computing jobs will go unfilled by 2020, according to latest stats. At the same time, tech workers are some of the highest paid professionals in the country. The KidsCode program, a private-public partnership between companies and public schools started in Utah four years ago is trying– and succeeding– to change things.
The program, initially started by XANT’s CEO and founder Dave Elkington, now includes companies like Domo, Vivint, Health Catalyst and Nuvi. Health Catalyst and Nuvi are the latest to join the program, which now includes seven schools in Utah.
Every Friday, employees of these companies spend a few hours with the children, teaching them about programming.
“There is a clear tech skills gap, and for Silicon Slopes to advance its standing to a global tech hub, we need to close it. This can only be achieved when private companies partner with public schools,” said Dave Elkington, CEO of XANT, according to a company press release.
Elkington has high hopes for the program, expecting the model to be followed in companies around the country. Anyone wishing to join and adopt a school can contact KidsCode online.
Building Kids Coding Skills and Confidence
Building kid’s coding skills allows them to gain confidence, say teachers and volunteers alike.
“My favorite story is a student who has been in special education in reading and math and really has struggled with school. But coding has been his niche. Once he’s been able to excel in coding, he has been able to do better in the other areas as well. It really builds his confidence,” recounts Sara Matis, principal at Maple Ridge Elementary.
“It’s not asking for the traditional schooling skills that have been a struggle for him because of his learning disability. He’s become a superstar at this subject and has been able to help others with coding, too,” she adds.
The fact that programming allows children to work with concepts they don’t meet in regular school curriculums opens up new ways of thinking about problems.
“This has been an incredibly useful program for the kids here. It opens up their minds, teaches them to think out of the box. It’s really enhancing their problem-solving skill level overall,“ said Melissa Anderson, fifth grade teacher working with the XANT volunteers.
Giving Back to the Community
At the same time, successful technology companies from the Valley have a chance to give back to the community. The volunteers are looking forward to come back and work with the kids every year.
Teaching them about coding builds awareness about the career opportunities that technology offers, and allows them to make decisions when it’s time to pick college majors, shows Tasleema Lallmamode, Senior Product Manager at Domo. This has been her first year involved in the program, and taught coding at Greenwood Elementary in American Fork. Greenwood is a Title I school, with a high percentage of students coming from low income families.
“I think the program is definitely going to help inform their choices later on. Hopefully, they grow up and they want to go to college, and maybe after that, or as part of their aspirations in college, they want to be part of the tech community or work in tech,” said Tasleema.
You Don’t Need to be a Developer to Get Into Tech
Tasleema has a B.S. in Engineering and an MBA from Arizona State University. She is hoping to inspire children and raise awareness about all of the other opportunities that tech presents. Technology isn’t just about coding, she adds.
“If you want to be part of the tech scene, you could become a developer if you wanted to, but there’s so many other things– like developing rich user experiences, developing things that are meaningful for people. It’s not just about doing something because it’s cool, but doing something because it has an impact. It’s about applying technology to a problem, not necessarily coding a new system,” said Tasleema.
John Badali, senior engineering manager at XANT, has been part of the program for three years already, and is happy to participate every time. He focuses on each student that needs help, perching over desks filled with laptops and candy wrappers. “It presents that unique opportunity to give back to the community in a way that we don’t have at our desks at work,” said John.
The Kids Are Having Fun Coding
Most importantly, the kids are having fun. At Sage Creek Elementary in Mapleton, principal Alison Hansen runs me through the program. She adds kids are delighted with learning things outside their regular curriculum.
“Really, Friday afternoons are the kid’s favorites. Technology employees are becoming role models for the children. It is fun to have somebody else other than the teacher showing them different concepts- someone from the community who does this for a living. It just has a different pitch to it, a different sell,” said Alison.
“I’ve had kids tell me or their teachers they want to be programmers when they grow up,” added Alison.
I went straight to the source on this one.
“I started last year with KidsCode. It’s really fun because you learn a lot about loops and variables. You get to the end of each level and you can do another level. It pushes you to work harder and figure out stuff,” told me Russell, who is in fifth grade at Maple Ridge.
Russell wants to be a paleontologist for now.
But maybe, just maybe, when he gets a little older– he’ll change his mind.