For the last 3 months the Innovation & Technology committee of the Hamilton Chamber of Commerce has had a new “technology education” subcommittee work on getting pilot code clubs started in Hamilton-area elementary schools. I want to give a quick update as to what’s happened, and outline how you can become involved.
In September the new technology education subcommittee was formed around the idea of getting code clubs into Hamilton-area elementary schools. A code club will consist of a weekly gathering of children interested in coding at an elementary school, with a mentor going through educational material to teach the children how to code using freely available tools. The idea isn’t new – the UK runs a nation-wide network of coding clubs for example.
The subcommittee has had a few discussions about these code clubs and what they should look like, one discussion was done with about a dozen teachers from the HWDSB and HWCDSB who were interested in the concept. The idea isn’t to make the code club feel like a classroom, but instead like a communal extracurricular activity akin to a sport or hobby, where after some initial help getting the children started with the tools, they are free to create things that interest them individually (e.g. games, art, animation, stories, etc.). Online tools such as Scratch and Khan Academy allow students to fairly easily build projects, save them, work on them at home later, and show their parents and friends what they’ve done.
IEC Hamilton and specifically subcommittee chair Cesare DiDonato (@CesareDiDonato) have been critical to making the connections with the HWDSB and HWCDSB and facilitating this process. We now have about 14 schools across the two boards (and a few other independent schools) interested in hosting a code club. We are now in the process of finding additional mentors and assigning mentors to these clubs.
In order for this to work, we’re going to need to more mentors to volunteer. The expectation for mentors is that they are either a post-secondary student or industry professional who is interested in running a weekly coding club at an elementary school.
– Clubs will be run for 1-2 hours a week, during the daytime, most likely during or around a lunch hour (i.e. not after school).
– Each code club will be started up and run by one mentor. Mentors will be matched to a classroom based on mutual availability and put in touch with a teacher. The grade range could be anywhere from grades 5-8.
– Mentors will initially attend the code club weekly for 4-6 weeks in a row in order to get the students up and running creating projects (i.e. showing them how to use the tool, explaining how different concepts like animation, looping, logic work within the tool).
– After this initial start-up period mentors should not need to attend the code club weekly, but instead at a reduced rate (e.g. monthly) to help keep the code club going (e.g. by showing them something new, checking in on what they’ve been working on, etc.). The concept is for the club to begin to operate semi-independently after the initial start-up period, with students creating projects on their own.
– The vast majority of teachers prefer that mentors use Scratch, at least to start with. But mentors will be free to show the students additional tools (e.g. Khan Academy), as long as they do so in coordination with the teacher.
– The subcommittee will provide the mentors with a “suggested curriculum” of what topics to go through each week using Scratch (e.g. Week 1 – Introduce the tool and how it works using one of x,y,z fun examples, Week 2 – Introduce looping using a,b,c fun examples, etc.).
– The boards are working on launching online forum tools that will allow mentors to communicate with teachers and answer student questions.
– Code clubs are expected to start-up in February-March. Ideally they will run through until June, with discussion about how to continue and expand the program into the next school term.
– The technology education subcommittee will continue to meet monthly as the code clubs launch, to discuss the progress of the clubs and how to proceed after the startup period.
– Mentors will be required to complete a police background check, the turnaround time is about a month and the cost is about $36 including taxes.
We’re trying something new here, which means the details aren’t set in stone and the bugs haven’t been worked out. So for example it may be that some clubs do not proceed after the start-up period and others do proceed through to June. That’s something we’ll be figuring out by trying it out. This pilot process is meant to identify what works and what doesn’t, so we can scale this project next year and into the future.
If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, contact Cesare DiDonato to get the process started:
After you have contacted Cesare to get that process started, you can contact me about the material that will be delivered in the classroom:
If you haven’t seen it before, Scratch is worth a quick poke around. It’s a tool developed by MIT researchers to teach children programming concepts.
The new online version of the tool allows students to do everything in the browser, which is excellent for portability, share-ability, accessibility, and continuation of the work outside the classroom (i.e. home). The tool allows students to create animations, games, tell stories, etc – a diverse enough array of activities to provide for different interests. There is also a ton of online help for the tool to assist with in-class learning and help with self-learning – tutorials, videos, examples, etc.
The subcommittee has talked about other ideas – for example running an “industry day” at McMaster Innovation Park aimed at motivating children to enter the field, with talks by professionals in different areas, where perhaps the students bring what projects they have been working on to show off to one another. The more mentors that engage in this process the more viable ideas like these become.
Another big topic of discussion was improving the official school curriculum. Right now the amount of software development education made available to students varies from school to school in Ontario, with the resources of the school and the background knowledge of the teachers being constraints. Obviously long term it’s critical to have more material integrated into the standard curriculum itself, but in the meantime extracurricular activities can help fill the gap. And to be honest, software development is a passion and a community as much as it is an academic discipline, so extra curricular activities may be as important or more important to getting more kids into coding.
Other discussions have been related to getting Hour of Code started in Hamilton for next year, or getting clubs started in high school.
These discussions are important, but we’re now at the point of moving forward with a pilot project. As a community builds around this subcommittee we can begin to tackle more problems, but it takes time to get things to the implementation stage.
This is not the first time that people have tried to get code clubs started in Hamilton-area schools. The process is difficult for bureaucratic and other reasons, but we have finally cleared enough hurdles to get these clubs started. We’ll hopefully make this process more streamlined in the future, for example by getting the police background checks covered by someone, by more clearly outlining the curriculum, sign-up forms, etc. But for this pilot project we’re going to need some willing people with a “can do” attitude to help us get these clubs off the ground.
I’m personally looking forward to running a code club in the new year, and I’ll be blogging about the experience as much as I can (in a general privacy-respecting sense) to let people know how it goes. I’m so excited!