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The Source Code

A Blog on Learning Coding and STEM skills

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

I recently suggested to Austin Kids DIrectory that they list our business in a category called STEM along with Mad Science. Idea Lab Kids would fit here too. I have also recently introduced Robotics and Graphics, which are broader STEM topics that may or may not involve coding. Why?

I want to appeal to a broader audience, including girls and kids that might not like the stereotype of coders. I hope that by inviting new students to our studio, they may be exposed to coding and change the way they think of coding. I think being a part of a community is important in the way that young people view themselves and in instilling excitement about what they want to do in the future. However, at the same time, while we do include math in our coding projects, we do not plan to conduct science or cooking experiments. Our end goal is to develop coders, not to just pass time coding. Coding is a skill that will enrich kids' lives regardless of their future career path.

Many programs in Austin are designed to engage kids under the age of 10 with cool activities like making flashlights or backpacks or dessert. Engagement is wonderful and necessary, but at My Coding Place, we want to train brains to think logically and to create a community of innovators. This is not limited to teaching coding. Solving problems with digital solutions is our mission, and to get there, I think we need to foster the following:

  • Mindfulness - students should think about coding outside of their time at the studio

  • Creativity - students should seek different ways to apply their skills

  • Passion - students should be engaged and seek to learn more

We are working on developing mindfulness, creativity, and passion. We have a handful of students that have been with us from the start that clearly demonstrate these attributes, but it is our job to instill these values through our programs. If we hire the right people, that will be a first step, but we must then train them to ask the right questions and continue to evaluate and improve our programs to differentiate from the many options in Austin for kids to learn to code.

Video games and entertainment will always win if kids have free time in front of a computer. Countless businesses are addressing what we can do to utilize that time in a way that benefits children. Platforms like Code Combat disguise coding in video game fashion where characters must write correct code to get to the next level. We use this platform as a motivational tool but realize its limitation for learning as students are often clicking through to complete the level without processing the educational value. I studied educational technology in graduate school because I was intrigued by the potential of technology for education and learning. It is a challenge I continue to think about on a regular basis, how to channel technology to optimize learning. While MCP has branched out to STEM, our focus remains on coding and reaching as many kids as possible with the rewards of coding.

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

When I first moved to Austin in 2003, I was looking for organizations to volunteer with and chose GirlStart. I supported after-school robotics for girls in a local middle school and wonder what those kids are studying now, whether STEM or another field. While I think the pipeline problem is important and needs to be addressed, I think an equally significant and perhaps bigger problem is post-graduation, with retention of women in technical fields.

This weekend I volunteered at Chicktech High School to support high school girls in an IoT workshop, building and coding a Micro:bit watch. The workshop teacher worked at Microsoft philanthropy training computer science teachers. It was very exciting to meet the ChickTech leadership team and fellow volunteers and mentors. All the women had their own stories of how they were introduced to computer science or resisted it because it was their parents' choice of discipline for them. I met the woman who brought ChickTech to Austin four years ago and really enjoyed her story. I also met teachers, software developers, and technical writers. We talked about how more women are needed in development and sales engineering, and how women tend to be in customer success or professional services such as training or consulting. While their presence and voice adds badly needed diversity to tech leadership, we still need women in the more technical domains . Women need to be recognized and respected for their abilities to design algorithms and write code, otherwise coding is still mainly for men.

I think what contributes to the lack of women in development is the lack of women in development. We don't see people that look like us on software engineering teams, so it is easy to feel isolated and lonely if you are female. It also takes a certain personality to have longevity as a developer, rather than branching out to other areas of a software company that are customer-facing. Unfortunately, because developers are mostly men, their leadership is men as well, which makes it hard for women to feel like they belong and feel like they have a voice.

For this reason, I applaud organizations like Women Who Code whose purpose is to create community among female coders. However, the challenges are great, as female developers will not see many fellow women on their development team or at development conferences. I think there needs to be more support at the corporate level and more leadership training and mentoring for women. The organizations supporting and growing the pipeline of girls and keeping them in computer science are doing a great job, and now the professional community must unite to recognize the challenge that female software engineers and sales engineers face and help them navigate and succeed in their male-dominated teams.

Updated: Oct 26, 2020

Since we opened 12.5 months ago, we have hired 18 staff in total, counting the 3 who accepted the offer but never showed up or started working at the studio due to personal conflicts or problems. We have interviewed and exchanged e-mails with over two dozen other candidates for the role of coding instructors and coding coordinators. Coding for kids sounds fun and rewarding, but committing for more than a few months requires more than just interest. Longevity requires mainly two things, assuming prospects are qualified for the role.

First, our teachers have another source of income and benefits, We are an after-school program teaching kids to code, and every child between the ages of 7 and 18 is in school during the day, whether homeschooled or at an institution. Outside of events and coding camps, we only open 20 hours a week and by appointment so our staff only works part-time. The studio coordinator works the most since he/she is there when MCP is open. Our teachers have other part-time or full-time jobs, or they are students.

Secondly, once the logistics work out and make sense for the candidate, what keeps them at My Coding Place, keeping them interested and performing well, is PASSION. I have always told people that most of our staff are not here for the paycheck and I still believe that to be true, which is what makes MCP a great place to work! Our instructors think coding is cool and want kids to be successful. I am regularly blown away by some of the things I hear being taught during lessons, such as sorting and binary search to 9 year olds! I love peeking in during camps and classes and seeing the teachers smiling and enjoying themselves, because kids are funny or they asked a funny question. Working with kids can be delightful but also requires patience, and our instructors work on that too. We talk about ideas for keeping kids engaged and how to be effective in communicating coding principles. One of our teachers just planned a theme-based Halloween activity that motivated the Robotics class with candy, and he dressed up for the class as well. Another teacher regularly tells me he isn't here for the paycheck, which I appreciate but, at the same time, he offers me a valuable service, one that keeps students coming back. We don't actually accept volunteers because we want to provide consistent and quality customer service to our families.

When I review the list of 18 current and former staff members, I am seriously impressed at their various skill sets and talents, ranging from technology teachers in the schools to software developers and consultants. Our current staff is dedicated and passionate, and I am grateful for their effort and dedication to the mission of reaching kids with the joys of coding. I wish I had more time to get them together for team events where they could talk about the latest movies or their hobbies, or coding exercises like FizzBuzz, which is used in software developer job interviews. I seriously heard that discussion at our last team meeting! Anyway, thank you to anyone who has worked at My Coding Place and formerly The Coder School. Thank you for joining me in this journey, and thank you for loving and believing in the power of coding and the need to pass it on!