Sisters Madeline & Margaret Paczkowski collaborate during CoderDojo, Albemarle's summer computer-programming academy

It’s day one of CoderDojo, Albemarle’s summer computer-programming academy, and thirty students with laptops are programming cartoon cats to strut from left to right across their computer screens.

“The purpose is not to teach kids,” Albemarle’s chief information officer Vincent Scheivert says. “It’s to get them experimenting and learning about learning.”

The CoderDojo will run for the next three weeks. Sessions are one week long and students attend morning or afternoon classes, Monday through Thursday.

While Monday’s meeting saw K-12 students making short video games in Scratch, an introductory programming language and online community aimed at beginners, the remainder of the week will focus on an introduction to the basics of website design, gaming platforms and robotics.

The CoderDojo concept, which originated in Cork, Ireland in 2011, is a place for young people to learn how to write computer code, build websites and develop games, programs and apps.

Albemarle’s first CoderDojo ran for one week in the summer of 2012, served nearly 250 students, and had a waiting list of nearly 1,000. Thanks to a $5,000 grant from the Battelle Memorial Institute, a non-profit research and development organization, and volunteer support, Scheivert says, the academy was able to expand to accommodate approximately 800 students this year. 

Broadus Wood Elementary School third grader Madeline Paczkowski says that during Monday’s class she learned about how to control the computer, noting that she was able to make a flying oriental rug, which was the object in her video game, move around her screen and make noises.  

Parent volunteer Jane McBrian says that the academy is a fun, hands-on way to introduce children to programming basics, noting that teaching sophisticated material, like HTML coding, early on might deter students who would otherwise be interested.

Additionally, McBrian says, the academy fosters a sense of collaboration.

“If they learn to collaborate well now, it will help them when they start working,” McBrian says. “In my job we collaborate all the time with people from other countries like India.”

And it is sparking student interest in computer technology jobs that Scheivert says is one of the academy’s benefits.

“We know that the United States doesn’t have the skilled labor to fill the economy’s current demands,” Scheivert says. “So this is about what we need to do in order to be proficient.”

“When we were growing up, we probably learned to make things with wood or how to change a tire,” Scheivert adds. “This is the 21st century way of changing a tire.”

Ben Williams, a camp volunteer and student at Western Albemarle High School, says he would like to pursue a career in computer technology.

“Our world is changing and computers and the internet are really useful,” Williams says. “Computer repair and Information Technology will stay around for a while, and how many people do you really know who can repair a computer?”

But both Williams and McBrian say that technology should be incorporated into classrooms appropriately.

“Some technology is good, but you don’t want to get totally addicted,” Williams says, noting that devices like Smart Boards are beneficial because they have allowed his teachers to present interactive material to his classes.

McBrian says that technology tends to be thrown in to classrooms, so its use should be linked to grade-level curriculum, noting that literacy can easily be fused into programming lessons for young learners by requiring them to build words into their programs.

In addition to the summer program, Albemarle runs a CoderDojo at schools throughout the county based on volunteer availability. More information can be found at: http://coderdojo.k12albemarle.org.

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