gears

This past week I attended two unusual Philly Tech Week events. They were “Introduction to Coding” sessions hosted by Coded by Kids, an organization which provides inner-city kids with tech skills. The events were at rec centers in North Philly and West Philly, with kids ranging from 9 to 14.

Coded by kids

Coding 101

Each session was two parts. In the first part, we tried to introduce some basic aspects of Coding 101. We asked the kids a few questions like:

  • What is coding? (“Hacking!”)
  • Why do we need coding? (“For hacking!”)
  • Where do you find code? (“Microwaves!”)
  • Who are coders? (“Game makers, hackers!”)
  • What skills are useful for coding? (“Math.”)
  • Q&A (“Are you a hacker?!”)

Turns out, they were totally fascinated with games and hacking. They have a pretty good idea of where code lives and why we need it, and understand that code lives in things like TVs, cellphones, gaming systems, etc. They don’t have any idea who “stereotypical” coders are – which is a good thing!

Hands On

The second, larger, half of the sessions was a hands-on exercise to introduce the kids to some code.

Original, boring twitter page
Here’s what the example originally looked like: Original, boring twitter page
Tyriqs example
Here’s what it looked like after I worked with Tyriq and his friend Jayden, 9 and 10 respectively

We gave them a pre-made HTML/CSS website via codepen.io, and worked with them to make alterations to the site including changing text, changing font styling, changing colors, and changing the images.

What They Learned

Messing things up

In the beginning, most of the kids I worked with were relatively worried about messing things up. At the very beginning of our hands-on session, Tyriq accidentally typed a bunch of gibberish in an HTML comment on the page. He was pretty upset at first that he had just messed up all his code. They’ve definitely been taught to be careful with computers, and they have a pretty good idea that computers/code can be fragile, and can be broken. However, this definitely seems to prevent them from truly experimenting.

Experimentation

Eventually, I was able to get the kids to experiment. Early in the hands-on portion, Tyriq wanted to change one of the images in the “tweet”. He successfully changed the first one, but then after finding a GIF he wanted to use for the second one, he changed his mind.

When I asked him why, he said he didn’t think it would work, because it was animated and not a still image like the one he used before. I had to push him to try it and see what would happen… and it worked!

Coding?

Coded by Kids hosts weekly sessions teaching coding skills, but the main goal of these sessions are to build interest, both for the kids and the rec centers. Although the kids might not really learn in-depth coding, the sessions serve as a good introduction to get kids excited about coding and to teach some basic concepts about coding and the web, such as:

  • How images have addresses that can be used on website;
  • How colors are represented by codes;
  • How you have to tell a computer exactly what to do (text size, color, underline)

Which is a pretty good start!

What I Learned

Inequity

When Mayor Jim Kenney came to visit one of the sessions, this is what he said:

This inequity makes me angry.

Packed room at Coded by Kids

What I learned made me angry as well. The computer labs in rec centers are grossly underfunded, as one might expect. I saw water leaking from the ceiling onto a desk of computers, a quarter of the workstations were not working, and several mice and keyboards were broken.

Not to mention that there just weren’t enough computers, with two and sometimes three students having to share one computer. One location didn’t even have enough chairs.

Technical Literacy

On a positive note, the kids were far more technically literate than I expected. They almost all have cellphones, some iPads, some laptops. They have Gmail accounts, and know how to use them. But what they don’t have is someone to focus that literacy or desire into something worthwile.

Colors

One last thing I learned, I learned from Tyriq himself.

While we were changing the colors of various things, I told him that instead of using hex codes such as #ffff00 for yellow, we could use the actual names of some colors. Expecting him to want to use a color like red, green, or blue, I asked him what color we should try.

He said turquoise.

Without an immense knowledge of the HTML specification, I thought that turquoise sounded a little too exotic to be an HTML color name, so I told him I didn’t think it would work. In response, he told me we should try it to see what would happen!

And of course, it worked!

Thanks to Brian Duggan and Patrick Smith for reading drafts of this post.