Coder Dojo trains kids in computer science


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The Sun was shining and the weather warm on March 7, displaying the first signs of spring. Still, a handful of kids stay indoors, learning the rudiments of computer programing — one student works on animating a simple cat and ladybug, another, more advanced student programs a webpage capable of calculating the exact amount of time between any date and his birthday.

They are all members of the Iowa City Coder Dojo, a nonprofit group staffed by volunteers who take time to instruct interested kids ages 6 to 18. It meets from 2 to 3:30 p.m. every Saturday in the second floor computer lab of the Iowa City Public Library, 123 S. Linn St.

“There’s no barrier for kids from any kind of socioeconomic status,”Iowa City Coder Dojo cofounder David Welch said. “You don’t have to look or act a particular way; you just have to be interested.” 

Welch started the Dojo three years ago with Hans Hoerschelman in the Information Technology Services area of the Old Capitol Town Center. Welch said the group moved to the library two and a half years ago for better exposure.

Now, he said, the group has a group of seven “core” volunteers and an additional eight who work part-time helping an average of about seven to 10 kids a week.

Coder Dojo is a weekly gathering of young enterprising coders and programmers learning from volunteering collegiate and professional tutors. Ryan Wedoff, currently a sophomore studying computer science at the University of Iowa, is one such volunteer. Watch below to hear Wedoff speak about the program.

Multimedia compiled by Michael Kadrie and edited by Lily Abromeit

Participants face no pressure to show up week-in and week-out; attendance is entirely optional.

“Our first question [to new kids] is always, ‘What do you want to do?’ ” Welch said. “Most don’t know and just say, ‘I think computers are cool.’ ”

He said they often start new or really young attendees on a program designed by MIT called “Scratch.” It is a simple programming language allowing for the creation of interactive stories, games, and animations, while also introducing the core mechanics of programming.

Otherwise, the members design curriculum around each student whenever possible.

“Learning computer programming is like learning a new language, a new way of communicating,” said Alicia Andrews, a new volunteer in the program who teaches computer science at Regina Elementary to grades kindergarten through sixth.  

“We all know the younger you start learning a new language, the easier it is …” she said. “Right now, my students use simple … programming [making] it more like a game than … a foreign language lesson. As they grow and their skills improve, I believe … computer-science students will have the means to change to the world.”

A particularly powerful moment for Welch occurred when Coder Dojo did a demonstration at the University of Iowa’s “Black Girls Do Science” event last year, he said. They gave a group of girls from ages 4 to 13 a clone of then-popular game “Flappy Bird” and told them to do whatever they wanted with it.

“There was this girl who was 5 or 6 … she changed the birds wings so when they went up it looked like lasers were shooting out,” Welch said. “She was sitting giggling … [this is why] programming is fun, you create things with your imagination.”

However, there are tangible incentives for members to increase their skill. Each attendee receives a white rubber wristband with a USB drive in it after five dojo visits. They can trade it in for another one of a superior color, with black being the best, by earning badges.

Participants earn the digital badges by sitting down with volunteers and proving their fluency in various programming languages. 

UI student Ryan Wedoff, a program volunteer, said he regrets not learning about computers earlier in life and sees a similar frustration in his peers at the University of Iowa. 

“[Coder Dojo] is something I wish I had when I was a kid, because I didn’t know I wanted to be a computer scientist until senior year of high school,” he said. “If I had had exposure to a program like this, I’m sure I would have loved it. I would have been way ahead of the game starting my college career as a computer scientist … It’s a real great way for kids to get to understand what computers are, not just be a person who uses the Internet for Facebook.” 

Iowa City’s Dojo, like all Coder Dojos, is autonomous. Qualifying as a “verified” Dojo requires adherence to a set of guidelines and standards that provides some help with fundraising. 

The very first Coder Dojo was launched in Cork, Ireland, in 2011 by James Whelton and Bill Liao. It has since become an increasingly visible international presence with more than 550 “verified” Dojos in 55 countries. 

Welch said a number of Dojos have sprung up across Iowa in recent years, appearing in Cedar Rapids, Muscatine, Ames, Cedar Falls, Waterloo, and other locations across the state. 

“Iowa has become this great place to be if you want to learn tech at a young age,” he said.

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