Learn to Code – a kids program in Winona working through Project FINE

I’m delighted to share details on an initiative from Project FINE and supported by the Blandin Foundation. It’s a great sample of what you can do with a kids coding class, if you have a college nearby…

Learn To Code program activities began in August 2016 with the summer camp.  In our grant proposal, we planned to host two camps: one in Winona and one in St. Charles.  During the camp planning phase, we worked closely with the College of Business at Winona State University and they generously allowed us to access technology and space on-campus to host a combined camp for youth from Winona & St. Charles.  This was a great benefit for the students, because we had a wonderful technology setup, with laptops, ipads, dual monitors for instruction and plenty of classroom space.  It also gave the youth a chance to visit the Winona State University campus and become familiar with a college classroom setting.

We were fortunate to have a local instructor to teach coding to youth at the summer camp.   He works in the technical support field and had previously taught coding classes for a local charter school.  Our camp sessions were held over 2 weeks from 4-8pm each weekday.  We originally planned to host the camp for 2 hours each day, but our instructor suggested we expand the camp time to allow the kids more hands-on experience, and the timeframe worked out very well.  16 youth participated in the camp, and they learned basic coding principles and how to use XCode to modify existing apps for games.  They worked together to modify and develop games and learned how to use a test mode to simulate the app use on a computer.  They also learned how to access their apps on an ipad, check for bugs, identify coding errors and make simple adjustments.

Following the coding camp, after-school sessions were held in both Winona and St. Charles during the 2016-17 school year.  Based on our experience with the app camp, we chose to host the Winona sessions in the fall of the year and the St. Charles sessions in the spring.  This allowed our volunteers and staff to focus on assisting one group at a time and gave more continuity for the youth.  50 students participated in the after-school sessions and they each learned to create multiple apps.  During the summer camp, we gained a greater understanding of the difficulty of creating apps or games and the challenges of writing code.  For the after-school programming, we decided to use a simpler block method of coding and used “Scratch” curriculum and activities developed by MIT.  This was a good choice, as the after-school sessions were shorter and less intense than the camp and the simpler coding format allowed youth to jump right in and begin creating code.

Throughout the after-school sessions, we had a group of 10 volunteers who served as mentors for the youth. They were a wonderful addition to the program, allowing for more individual assistance for youth and providing technical knowledge that was beyond our staff capacity.  The majority of the volunteers were college students studying in technology- or computer-related fields, and a few were young professionals already working in a career in technology.

One of our additional goals for the project was to provide information about STEM-related careers and increase interest through visits to tech companies or educational institutions.  The volunteers helped with this goal throughout the project, serving as role models for the youth and sharing their educational and work experiences.  We also toured the Winona State University campus during the summer camp and visited Minnesota State College Southeast in April 2017.  At Minnesota State College Southeast, the Dean of Trade and Technology gave the youth a tour of their various technology classrooms and lab spaces and shared the many technology-related opportunities they offer.  We also visited Benchmark Electronics, which is an international electronics company that engineers and manufactures a wide variety of technology products that are used in health care, manufacturing, transportation and other areas.  The youth learned about some of the products they design and manufacture, and saw various stages of production from concept drawings to computer boards to assembly and completed parts.  It was a great tie-in to our Minnesota State College Southeast visit, as our tour guide was an alumnus who has worked at the company for many years and now holds an upper-level management position.  The youth were very surprised to learn about all the different products, the type of coding and technology used to created them, and the many technology career options in the Winona area.

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