Cracking the Code

Modern technology leads kids to better futures

Kids learn to code at Coding With Kids, Redmond location. Photos by Rachel Coward

One of the challenges of modern parenting is the ongoing battle over “screen time.” We’ve all heard that too much can lead to flabby bodies, stunted cognition and antisocial behavior — not to mention the tediously boring Minecraft/Clash of Clans/Terreria conversations endured by parents at the dinner table. But what if it’s not all bad? What if we could harness their obsessions with these “digital Legos” to help them get a leg up on a future career?

Kirkland mom Vlasta Hillger struggled endlessly with her two boys, ages 9 and 11, over Xbox privileges. The fighting, whining and giving in became an acute source of guilt for her as a mom. When the boys discovered Minecraft (a “sandbox” game that allows you to build in a 3-D world) a couple of years ago, the intensity level only went up.

But, as Hillger investigated more closely, she discovered they weren’t just playing video games and goofing off. “They were typing all these commands and I realized they were learning about how computer programs run,” says Hillger.

She began researching computer programming classes for kids and came up empty except for one company in the Bay Area called ID TECH that offered expensive summer camps. Hillger decided it was worth it, wrote the check and signed up the boys.

20140714_CodingwithKids095Then, she started following on Facebook. At the end of 2013, the organization launched its “Hour of Code” initiative to help “remove the veil” and introduce regular people to the language of programming. According to its website, by the year 2020 there will be a 1 million-person gap between available computer science jobs and computer science students in the United States. With only 5 percent of American children receiving any kind of computer programming classes currently, there will be no way for this generation to compete with the extremely high percentage of Chinese students learning how to code — unless we make a big change and quickly.

While STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) classes and schools are a great step toward making these changes, they reach only those kids who have room in their schedules to add them as electives or who have been selected at random by lottery systems designed to deal with demand at these coveted charter schools.

But Hillger didn’t give up and was delighted to discover new small companies popping up to fill in the gap like Coding With Kids, owned by the husband-wife team Marek Brejl, with a Ph.D. in image processing, and Jitka Brejlova, MBA, along with a third partner, Michael Katz. Brejl gave up a successful career in visualization software development at Microsoft to start Coding With Kids because he was appalled by the projected skills gap.

“We made the connection between the statistics and the interest level from local families and decided that teaching computer science to elementary school children is something that could be really important, both for the kids and for the society,” says Brejl.

Brejl and Katz developed curriculum for kids as young as second grade. Their after school programs are designed to prepare kids to pass the AP Computer Science exam in high school. Starting with the question, “Where do you find code?” students are reminded about the wide variety of applications for coding skills from the obvious, like computers and smart phones, to the lesser recognized code in appliances, light displays and mechanical devices.

Marek Brejl

Marek Brejl

Logical thinking skills are the foundation of building coding software, hence the title of “architect” for many developers. Coding With Kids curriculum teaches students to break problems into smaller pieces, simplifying the solution. Even if students do not pursue a career in computer science, these skills will help them succeed in many fields.

Every student begins in Level 1 with a program called Scratch, and can join at any time of the year. Depending on previous experience, a child may finish the level in six weeks or, if brand new, the levels take anywhere from six months to a year to complete. The company provides laptops for the students to use in class and makes homework projects accessible on the web.

After a few sessions, students with basic Scratch skills can participate in a Hack-a-thon, one-night events presenting student teams with a specific project to complete in a limited amount of time. Hack-a-thons include a special guest programmer to inspire kids and hone their project management expertise.

Brejl loves working with young kids because of their enthusiasm. “Kids are very comfortable with technology. They get into it and they don’t want to stop when class is over. You can almost physically see how the logic is working in their minds.”

Hillger says her boys now discuss programming projects at the dinner table, thinking aloud in code syntax of how they would solve a particular problem. Coding With Kids has converted screen time into something more productive and creative.

“Coding is an essential skill people need now, like driving a car,” says Brejl. “No matter what you do, everyone could benefit from having some coding skills.” Or, to paraphrase Bronwen Grimes, a technical artist at Valve Software, “not learning how to program is like not learning how to read.”

Coding With Kids is currently available in two Redmond locations and at Mark Twain Elementary in Kirkland with more coming soon.

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