Petaluma programming club making coders out of kids



On an unseasonably hot Wednesday afternoon, 18 kids between the ages of 9 and 13 sat in a square of tables with laptops in front of them and a copy of the book “Computational Fairy Tales” by their sides. Despite the heat and lure of video games, they listened to Candace Stump as she asked them to explain an algorithm.

“Something you write that gives direction to something to do something,” one of the kids offered up. And, inevitably, pizza entered the conversation.

Stump, a former software engineer who describes herself as a teacher and a “hacktivist,” was not phased. She deftly incorporated this into the challenge and asked the kids to describe how to build a pizza with an algorithm that included an “if then” and “if else” pattern.

“If pizza’s there, then num num … If else, cry with sadness,” Bobby Blalock, 11, said.

Unless you’re a computer programmer, this might sound like nonsense, but in fact pizza, like video games, is just another tool to teach kids how to write code and, according to Stump, actively participate in ubiquitous technology.

“The iPhone is an oracle,” she said. “We are not invited to take it apart. We just consume it. But we want kids to see themselves as producers, not just consumers.”

Stump believes that by teaching kids to code and, literally, take apart and investigate technology, they can accomplish this goal. Computers are everywhere, she explained, and understanding how they work — “making the invisible visible” — is key to becoming a global citizen and understanding the larger world.

Stump, her husband, Barry, who is also a software engineer, and John Crowley, co-owner of Aqus Cafe and software engineer, all share this philosophy. In fact, they were actively looking for a way to help more kids learn about technology.

Enter CoderDojo, a global movement that started in Ireland in 2011. Crowley, an Irishman who moved to Petaluma over 20 years ago, told the Stumps about the free, volunteer-led, community-based programming clubs for young people. And they all agreed it was a great fit for Petaluma.


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