Take a sprite, a stage and a script, and what have you got? While it might sound like a production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, these are actually the building blocks of Code Club, a nationwide network of volunteer-led after school coding clubs for children aged 9-11. Code Club aims to bring IT professionals together with local schools to help encourage children to learn the basics of programming and have fun at the same time.
Through the support of John O’Donovan, FT Technology became involved with Code Club earlier this year. Michael Mentessi from Code Club came in to give us a crash course in volunteering and using Scratch (a programming language developed by MIT), and in April we started volunteering at two local schools in the London Borough of Southwark.
Luckily Code Club has created a set of projects using Scratch, HTML/CSS and Python that volunteers and children can easily follow to create fun things – such as a fruit machine game, a website, or your very own version of minecraft!
My team, comprising of Jason Mackie, Adam Braimbridge and Aravind Kumaresan, ran a club at St Joseph’s Primary School, and Yolande Leung, Chris Gathercole, Manoj Talwar, Galia Rimon and Riccardo Pereira ran a club at The Cathedral School. The schools are situated across the road from one another – but they may as well have been world’s apart in terms of the different experiences each club provided.
While at St Joseph’s we were using age old Dell laptops, across the road at the Cathedral School they had a cupboard full of brand new Macs. Our club was all Grade 5 children, most of whom hadn’t used Scratch before, while the Cathedral School’s club included a wide age range with varying Scratch abilities. We stuck to doing one project at a time, while the other team ran multiple projects simultaneously. Some children raced solo through each project, whilst others preferred sedately working in pairs. However there was one common issue we all had to contend with – limited battery life!
Each team was faced with it’s own unique challenges and like all great Shakespearean comedies we had laughter, tears, misunderstandings and difficulties to overcome. However the flexibility of the Code Club curriculum allows clubs to run in many different formats, and ultimately there was a happy ending. The clubs were very successful and both schools have asked for the them to continue in September. Pearson are now also looking to roll Code Club out to more locations given the success of the FT experience.
Our two volunteer groups had a mix of experienced programmers and non-programmers. Concerns about how a non-programmer could ‘teach’ coding soon evaporated after the first lesson. It became clear that it was quite easy to have a go at a project before facing the children, and simply stepping through the project instructions carefully with the children was all that was needed.
There was a very interesting debrief/retrospective session with Michael and all the volunteers together, after the final week of term. It gave us volunteers a chance to compare notes and hear that many of our experiences were shared by groups at other schools. Picking two of the many points discussed:
- the children craved rewards in the form of certificates of achievement at the end of the term, and were very happy/insistent on demonstrating their latest work to the group. We reckoned handing out more badges along the way would be effective.
- the volunteers decided that next time we would put more effort into provoking/leading the children into achieving a deeper understanding of the code in each project. We had observed a tendency for kids to race through a project and ‘finish’ it, without really taking the time to appreciate what all the code was doing. A simple proposal back into the Code Club was to provide suggestions, e.g. questions to ask, for how volunteers could tackle this.
Personally, it has also been really rewarding to see how excited the children get about creating something, and the fact they are able to personalise each project has made for some really funny results!
You don’t need to have prior programming experience to become a Code Club volunteer – all you need is an interest in learning, a desire to have fun and a little bit of patience.