“I got it!” Jermiana Cannon exclaimed upon realizing that she could use a “repeat” command to shorten some computer code she’d just written. The exclamation echoed across the room—and signaled hope for New Haven kids aiming for the jobs of the future.
Cannon’s exclamation took place Monday inside a newly refurbished computer lab at the Jefferson Street headquarters of the LEAP youth education and rec program. There, LEAP has dived into a summer experiment into how to close a tech-education gap that leaves girls and urban kids behind in the evolving new economy.
Twelve groups of elementary and middle-schoolers, six to eight kids at a time, are using what LEAP Interim Executive Director Henry Fernandez termed “a pretty cool curriculum” developed by the group code.org to teach young kids the basic concepts of programming.
By 2020, an estimated one million new jobs will exist that require some knowledge of coding. An estimated 12 percent of college students major in computer science, most of them male, disproportionately few of them black or Latino.
“As far as I know, we are the only folks in Connecticut trying this with inner-city kids,” said Fernandez, who helped found LEAP a generation ago and has returned temporarily to fill the day-to-day director’s slot.
Monday’s lesson launched the second of a six-week, twice-a-week, offering for each kid, made possible in part by a grant to LEAP from the NBC Universal Foundation. The money went toward purchasing equipment, increasing internet speed, and converting the lab into a setting where kids can learn algorithms, programming, and the concepts that could place them on the track to future tech jobs.
Fernandez pronounced the pilot program both creative and eminently practical. “You learn to code,” he said, “and you can go to college.”
Noting the under-representation of females in the tech field, he pointed proudly to his teachers, Southern Connecticut State University grad student Heather Fleming and her assistant, Hamden High 14-year-old Sajdah Abdul-Karim.
The Next Generation
Fernandez observed Monday’s lesson with a sense of both deja vu and personal understanding. As a middle-schooler in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., Fernandez taught himself how to write computer code. It was an obsession, as were sports. The code-writing skill—he had taken enrichment courses in the material during high school summers—helped him get into Harvard. He paid for his education there in part by writing code for the sociology department.
Now he’s creating that opportunity for the LEAP kids. In a sense it’s a second grand digital adventure at LEAP.
“Twenty years ago LEAP was one of the first places in the country to introduce kids to the Internet,” Fernandez said.
“Similarly we’re one of the first places introducing coding to inner-city kids. You do see it being taught in wealthier communities and elite private schools, but not in inner-city elementary and and middle schools. Our kids have the intellectual firepower and the creativity” to get it, and to run with it, he added.
Line By Line
The students arrived at the main LEAP site on Jefferson Street Monday after a literacy-based morning of academics and a noodle lunch at the organization’s Church Street South site. They reviewed the first week’s lesson: the first steps of coding, and how a computer can’t read an “a” but reads binary symbols for an “a.”
Then on to the new lesson: writing algorithms and breaking down math problems into simple steps in computer codes.
“Sounds really intense, but it’s not that bad,” said Fleming.
Stori Peterson’s task on her computer Monday was to move a little cartoon guy, whom she’d named Bob, all the way around the square, on whose corner he perched. She added a line of computer code to move him 100 pixels, or 100 points along the line.
She added another command to her code to turn him 90 degrees.
She repeated those two commands four times, then realized she could write the two commands only once, creating a “function.” She added the command “repeat four times” before the function.
Presto! She’d given the computer instructions it could understand to accomplish a task, in the shortest number of steps possible.
“Congratulations!” the computer wrote back to her: “You just wrote 6 lines of code.”
Stori was among the first to finish an exercise in how an algorithm differs from a program. For those of us code-challenged: An algorithm is a written set of instructions using words to complete a task; you set it up writing one sentence of instruction per line.
A program, the kids and a reporter learned, is a set of instructions or commands, using symbols that the computer can understand, to translate the algorithm into digital action.
Still following? The LEAP kids were.
And a “function”? That’s code that can be called on, or repeated, again and again.
For the bulk of the lesson, the kids went to their computers to practice and explore at their own speed. Their teachers stood nearby to help, one on one.
Each movement required some knowledge of geometry, or at least angles, and different blocks of code that the kids selected and dragged from a list the game or puzzle offered.
Stori said she had been learning angles and geometry at the Betsy Ross Arts Magnet School, which she attends, with a focus on being a dancer.
But not on computers, and she receives no coding instruction at the school.
She had such a good time Monday, she wanted more of it. When the session ended, she pulled out her smart phone, took a photo of the URL in which she had been working, and said she was going to continue at home that evening.
Later in the week, at the next session, she could help teach the other kids, offered Fleming.
Fernandez said that if the pilot program is successful, “We’ll grow it.”