Tech Support for Curious Kids (and Low-Tech Parents)

One Saturday a month, dozens of kids from across the New York metro area, with parents in tow, attend free learn-to-code workshops run by CoderDojo NYC. 

Kids as young as six years old are let loose to explore computer science with tech industry pros who volunteer as mentors.

I discovered CoderDojo NYC in 2013 during an otherwise fruitless search for coding classes for my tech-enthusiastic, (then) nine-year-old daughter. We made the trek into Manhattan for a November workshop, not knowing what to expect. After a few hours of playing with binary code, we were both hooked.

And I’m not alone. Despite the quiet and free wi-fi in designated “parent zones,” many adults opt to hang out on the workshop floor to help their kids embrace their inner geek and, in some cases, because they’re tech-curious, too.

Launched in 2012, CoderDojo NYC is part of the global CoderDojo network of free programming clubs for kids.

“I’m a different kind of geek, which is why I bring him here,” said Kim Bernhardt, parent of Jake Hardin-Bernhardt, 10, a participant at the October 24, 2015, CoderDojo NYC workshop. “We are doing the best we can to keep up with his interests.”

In fact, although Jake is a veteran CoderDojo NYC participant, he opted to learn something new this time around. The result? Computer Smash.

Jake Hardin-Bernhardt, 10, received enthusiastic support from mentors for a prank game he'd built with Python at the October 24 CoderDojo NYC workshop. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
Jake Hardin-Bernhardt, 10, received enthusiastic support from mentors for a prank game he’d built with Python at the October 24 CoderDojo NYC workshop. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo

“This is my first time doing Python,” he said. “I decided to modify the spaceman program and came up with this. I got so good at moving things around that I thought it could be interesting to make a prank game. So far, I have twelve views and one download.”

Nearby, Ben Fernandes, 8, enlisted help from his mom, Lisa Fernandes, to create a maze game. It was their first CoderDojo NYC workshop and their first time working with Scratch. Ben had some block programming experience, thanks to the Flappy Code tutorial on Code.org. But he credited his mom with helping him troubleshoot a particularly knotty issue.

“You have to figure out how to make the code work,” Ben explained. “Now, I’m trying to figure out how to duplicate points without making three or four of these code blocks. That’s my ambition.”

His mom enjoyed the challenge, too. “I’m a lifelong learner, so this was a great opportunity,” she said. “It was a dedicated three hours of coding and problem solving.”

CoderDojo NYC mentor Brad Larson is a software engineer at Work Market, host site for the October workshop. He co-taught a year-long, coding course two years ago in the Bronx as a volunteer with Microsoft’s Technology Education and Literacy in Schools program. He found CoderDojo NYC through a friend just a few months ago. At the October 24 workshop, he mentored kids and ran a brief, but packed, “lighting round” information session for parents.

“I think what makes these workshops so compelling for non-tech parents is the unknown,” he said. “Every parent wants the best for their child and usually that means conversing about it afterward, speaking the same language. Just by knowing a little bit themselves, it can spark that conversation or thought their child might need to approach a new challenge or plow through a roadblock.”

Angela Gonzalez was one of the parents in the room for Larson’s presentation. She first attended CoderDojo NYC sessions with her son Elijah, “a math and science kid,” because there were few resources in their community. Since then, her daughter Cassandra, 10, has begun participating, too.

Gonzalez saw parallels between the workshops and her professional experience (on the business side) at a start-up, too.

“At a start-up, anybody can give feedback,” she said. “Here, everybody works like friends, they’re learning while they’re having fun. There’s not a lot of pressure because they can explore different things—HTML, CSS, Scratch—so they’re learning, but it doesn’t feel like work.”

But it’s not only the kids who are picking up how to code.

“I sit next to developers at work and their work is interesting! It makes me want to learn what my kids are doing,” Gonzalez laughed. “So, I’m learning with them and it helps me with my job because I can see what the developers are doing. I’ve even learned how to do enough text editing to change a page that wasn’t working for me, and they were like, ‘Look, you can do this!'”

Not thinking of one’s self as a technical person is something CoderDojo NYC mentor and CodeEd Executive Director Carey Tan can identify with.

“I came to coding late. I was the kid who was always interested in the way things worked and constantly took things apart. But it didn’t occur to anyone to suggest a computer science class to me,” she said. “Teaching kids to code isn’t just about the coding itself. It’s also about inspiring kids to be curious about the way things are built, and about helping them to develop the confidence that they, too, can figure out how to build and hack those things themselves.”

CoderDojo NYC mentor and CodeEd Executive Director Carey Tan checked out a maze game that Ben Fernandes, 8, built (thanks to an assist from mom, Lisa) with Scratch at the October 24 workshop. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo
CoderDojo NYC mentor and CodeEd Executive Director Carey Tan checked out a maze game that Ben Fernandes, 8, built (thanks to an assist from mom, Lisa) with Scratch at the October 24 workshop. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo

The summer after high school, Tan taught herself to program so that she could create a personal website with an online journal and her other projects. In college, she was a music major and focused on nonprofit management, but her ability to code websites garnered the most attention. When Tan was partnered with a nonprofit for an internship project, the thing they needed most was a new site.

“I tried to get out of it; I didn’t think of myself as a technical person,” she said. In the end, she created a great site that helped the organization enhance its visibility.

At CodeEd, an NYC-based nonprofit, Tan is flipping the script by training mentors with technical experience to teach computer science to middle school girls in underserved communities. As a CoderDojo NYC volunteer, she was impressed with the high-energy mix of mentor, kid, and parent engagement.

“As someone committed to getting more girls excited about computer science, I fight the image that programming is a solitary activity,” she said. “It can and should be social.”

Grace Jebaily, 6, built a flying butterfly with littleBits during the October 24 CoderDojo NYC workshop. Although it was Grace's first workshop, her sister Catherine, 9, has been coming for the past year, since getting hooked on Scratch through a video game design club at school.
Grace Jebaily, 6, built a flying butterfly with littleBits during the October 24 CoderDojo NYC workshop. Although it was Grace’s first workshop, her sister Catherine, 9, has been coming for the past year, since getting hooked on Scratch through a video game design club at school. “I’m a big believer in STEM education and getting girls started early,” said their mom, Claire Lynch. Photo copyright: Jen Citrolo

Unfortunately, “social” can be a challenge for kids whose passions don’t necessarily align with those of their neighbors.

“I try to find opportunities for him to be with people who think like him so that he can learn to feel comfortable with his own kind of geekiness,” noted Bernhardt, Jake’s mom. “A few years ago, someone at school called him a geek. He was upset about it, so we talked about what the word meant and I pointed out that many of our family members and a lot of our friends fit the term. When he’s at CoderDojo, basically the room is full of people who fit the geek label and he loves it.”

As geeks of all stripes can attest, that sense of community makes all the difference.

“No child should go on this journey alone,” Larson said. “It’s so much more fun to do it with friends, to do it with a support system…and that can be hard to find sometimes in tech.”

Beyond the dojo and online tutorials, here are three key social resources Larson says kids need to grow their tech talent:

  • Supporters: People who say, “Wow! How’d you do that?” place the child in the teacher role. Explaining their work to others helps to deepen their understanding.
  • Peers: Friends who share a child’s passion are great sounding boards for ideas and can help work through problems.
  • Mentors: Experts who can challenge them or suggest something new.

Jen Citrolo is on a lifelong mission to learn cool stuff, from carpentry to circuits to coding…and beyond. Luckily, she’s got a STEM-y tween to conspire with and a wise husband who’s keen on taking the dog for long walks whenever the safety goggles come out. They live in New York’s Lower Hudson Valley.