published Friday, July 12th, 2013

Camp for code: Library course teaches teens the basics of computer programming, robotics

Seun Erinle, standing, helps students on the first day of DEV DEV.
Seun Erinle, standing, helps students on the first day of DEV DEV.
Photo by Shawn Paik.
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    HTML teacher Seun Erinle explains the “History of the Internet” to students.
    Photo by Shawn Paik.
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    Librarian Justin Hoenk, front, and James McNutt work on the first day.
    Photo by Shawn Paik.
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    Program director James McNutt, left, helps Faith Steele.
    Photo by Shawn Paik.
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OTHER CLASSES

In addition to DEV DEV, the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library at 1001 Broad St. is hosting a variety of programs and events for teens through the end of July:

(Note: A full list of programming is available under the events section at www.ChattLibrary.org/Teens. All events are in the second-floor teen center unless otherwise noted.)

• Mondays, 5-6 p.m., and Fridays, 2-3 p.m. — Meet and build with the Lego Club.

• Saturday, 2-2:45 p.m. — Hear a live performance by the students of Mark Ferguson’s Rock Skool.

• July 20, 1-5:45 p.m. — Learn the basics of tabletop roleplaying, create a character and join a short Dungeons & Dragons campaign.

• Mondays and Fridays, 9 a.m.-8 p.m. — Take advantage of the 3-D printer and other technological resources in the fourth-floor creative lab.

For most kids, summer camp is a place for swimming, hiking, making crafts of questionable quality and eating food of equally dubious origin.

During the next three weeks, however, DEV DEV: summer of code, a free computer coding “camp” at the downtown branch of the Chattanooga Public Library, will help 43 teens bond by learning to design web pages and program robots instead of singing around a fire and sewing leather wallets.

On Monday, the program’s opening day, Chaz Whitten, 15, sat with three other campers at one of six round tables in an alcove near the teen center on the library’s second floor. With the glow of a silver Samsung Chromebook laptop shining off his glasses, Chaz says DEV DEV is offering him a chance to save money and learn skills he expects will be invaluable later in life.

“I’ve always been interested in coding and stuff like that,” he explains. “By the time we’re done, I’m hoping to have a better grasp on the basics and some of the intermediate stuff of coding, so I can eventually start working on creating software.”

The camp — whose name is coding language for “developing developers” — will continue through Aug. 2. Each week, campers will meet Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in morning and afternoon sessions to learn about topics such as hypertext markup language (HTML), cascading style sheets (CSS), the Python programming language and robotics.

The camp is a collaborative endeavor between the library, local tech startup Engage 3D and the Chattanooga chapter of AIGA, the professional association for graphic design. Campers won’t receive professional certification in coding or web development, but hopefully, they’ll see these technologies as less intimidating, says camp organizer James McNutt.

“This is dipping your toes in and getting your feet wet,” says McNutt, who is Engage 3D’s education director. “Many people say, ‘I can’t create technology. That requires coding, and that’s difficult stuff.’ There’s this wall of entrance, [and] the intent is to break that down.”

STARTING UP

This winter in the library’s fourth-floor public laboratory and creative think tank, McNutt headed up Community Py, an eight-week course to teach teens and adults to code in Python, a widely used, high-level, programming language. Within three hours of opening registration, the course filled all 24 available slots with a waiting list of 15 to 20.

McNutt says he was encouraged to create DEV DEV based on the success of the Python course and after reading reports about the struggle in public education to bolster science, technology, engineering and math instruction. About a month ago, McNutt and the rest of the camp organizers received a $40,000 grant from the Benwood Foundation to pay instructors and teaching assistants and to purchase 55 Samsung Chromebook laptops.

Once funding was secured, the camp sent out an all-call for applicants between the ages of 12 and 18, Engage 3D Development Director Lindsey Frost Cleary says. Campers were assigned to either the morning or afternoon group roughly according to whether they had completed algebra, which introduces aspects of abstract thinking that can help smooth the process of learning to code.

Library adolescent specialist Justin Hoenke says that, when he was a teenager, he shared the same love of technology as the DEV DEV campers. While working as a teen librarian in Maine and New Jersey, he wanted to host a coding camp for teens but lacked the necessary resources, he says, so watching the campers learning the digital rope was rewarding on many levels.

“I’m sort of hoping it starts a revolution with teens getting interested in technology and teaching them … that they can ... take ahold of their own future,” Hoenke says. “Bringing all these people together, hopefully, will build this army of coders and hackers and things like that.”

Learning lessons, lessons learned

On Monday, campers were madly scribbling basic HTML coding tags in their composition notebooks under the watchful eye of instructor Seun Erinle, the Chattanooga-based founder of blerd (black nerd) website BlerdNation.com. After an hourlong lesson, they took time for a daily “unplugged” activity to reinforce what they’d learned and, since it was the first day, a chance to get to know each other.

Throughout the program, campers also will meet about a dozen special guests, including appearances via a group video chat by a representative from Google San Francisco and another by Linda Liukas, the community manager for Codecademy, an education site with a free coding course.

Based on the success of DEV DEV, Frost Cleary says the hope is to offer expanded future programs that take a more focused look at one topic instead of a survey of many.

“For us, this is a pilot program,” she says. “That was the goal, to come out of it with a good idea of what works and what doesn’t work and what we can expand.”

One area Frost Cleary and McNutt say they recognize could use improvement is in the diversity of the campers, the vast majority of whom are boys. Of the 20 participants Monday, only three were girls, all clustered at a table in the back next to waist-high book shelves displaying copies of “Shonen Jump,” a Japanese manga publication.

“That is certainly a big concern in technology education that there aren’t very many girls getting into code,” McNutt says. “I think in Chattanooga there are a good number of girls who would be interested in this, but we just didn’t successfully reach out through the appropriate avenues to get them.”

An August 2011 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce found that men outnumber women three to one in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) jobs. Despite reflecting the national trend, the under-representation by girls in the Chattanooga coding camp is something Frost Cleary says she is determined to correct in future versions of the program.

“It doesn’t surprise me that so many boys applied, but it does indicate to me that we need to do a better job next year of reaching out to girls,” she admits. “We’ll need to get some people around us to help us figure out how to address that.”

As the camp wrapped up its first days and her fellow campers completed a final exercise to demonstrate their grasp of HTML coding, East Hamilton Middle High School student Taryn Robinson, 13, continued working at her computer. She says she sees DEV DEV as an opportunity to stand out from the crowd and embrace her love of technology.

“A lot of girls aren’t really into computers at all, so I wanted to do something rare for females,” Taryn says. “I like computers. It’s been cool. I really didn’t expect to like [the camp] this much.”

Contact staff writer Casey Phillips at cphillips@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6205. Follow him on Twitter at @PhillipsCTFP.

about Casey Phillips...

Casey Phillips has worked as a features reporter in the Life department since May 2007. He writes about entertainment, consumer technology, animals and news of the weird. Casey hails from Knoxville and earned a bachelor of science degree in journalism and a bachelor of arts in German from Middle Tennessee State University, where he worked as the features editor for the student newspaper, Sidelines. Casey's writing has earned numerous accolades, including first and second place ...

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