Education

Teaching computer programming through making in Oakland’s Fruitvale

Students in the lab of Code Next, an after-school program put on by Google. MIT Media Lab developed the curriculum.
Students in the lab of Code Next, an after-school program put on by Google. MIT Media Lab developed the curriculum.
Google

Making computer programming a part of the K-13 curriculum is becoming  a rallying call in the United States. But just because you teach a subject doesn’t mean you get kids interested in it. So the real challenge is how to get kids, who might not necessarily be into computers, to pursue a career in coding?

Google and MIT’s Media Lab are trying to answer that question at Code Next, an after-school program located in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Coding programs put on by tech companies are often in a Google office or held at a local school. But Code Next is a storefront space in a shopping center next to the Fruitvale BART Station. The idea is to capture high school students from this working-class neighborhood.

Valeria Fornes, 14, says that, until now, the extent of her computer skills has been helping her dad troubleshoot his smartphone. She goes to a high school a few miles up the street.

“The most fun thing I’ve made is using the 3-D printer and I made a game,” Fornes said.

By game, Valeria means a board game. The one she made had little pieces that fit inside the board. It took a few tries to make those pieces fit, she said, but she figured it out. What does making a board game have to do with coding computers?

“Everything’s just a big puzzle,” Fornes said. “Like if something doesn’t work, you have to rearrange almost everything.”

And that process is similar to coding, said April Alvarez, the after-school program’s experience manager. She was part of a team that worked with community members and students to develop the program.

The idea is simple: coding is also making, and it takes the same problem-solving skills as making stuff in real life. Google teamed up with MIT’s Media Lab to create the Code Next curriculum.

The lab space where students work is the size of a classroom, only with a 3-D printer and laser cutter along one wall. The lab has an industrial feel; the floors are concrete, the ceiling is exposed. Alvarez said the architecture has been carefully planned to reflect Code Next’s teaching philosophy.

“We wanted kids to see the inner workings of this space,” she said. “We want them to see the pipes, the wiring, everything that makes this place work.”

Instead of lectures on programming, students at Code Next are assigned projects — like making a board game. Instead of teachers, Code Next has coaches. Many are trained classroom teachers, though they don’t necessarily have coding skills. Together, the students and coaches figure out how to make stuff.

Bryson Gauff is a coach and was helping students create the graphics for a sticker on the computer.

“What’s been really cool for me is, not being a coder, learning with the kids,” Guaff said.

Creating a new model

Hadi Partovi has done a lot of thinking about how to teach computer programming in elementary and high schools. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Code.org, a nonprofit that provides computer science curriculum and teacher training to K-12 schools. Code.org is used in about 120 school districts nationwide and is funded by tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

“These are relatively new ideas,” Partovi said. “They’re broadly seen as a way to get students engaged but they’re not broadly used.”

Partovi said in college he learned computer programing by taking notes while listening to an expert programmer give a lecture. He says that approach generally works for students who are already into coding, but it’s failed to hook students who aren’t. And it’s these students educators need to reach.

Last year more than 600,000 tech jobs went unfilled in the United States. Tech companies and the Obama administration have pushed to make computer science a part of the K-12 curriculum. But even in California, home of Silicon Valley, a large majority of high schools don’t offer classes in computer programming.

“This is still a relatively nascent field and the majority of our public schools don’t teach it. And so computer science really lends itself to a new pedagogical model,” Partovi said.

He said universities from Harvard to Carnegie Mellon — and MIT with Code Next — have been taking the lead in creating a new model. While Google plans to open a similar after-school program in Harlem next year, MIT says the immediate goal is to use the programs to figure out a curriculum that works and get educators to adopt it.

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