Tag Team Tech: Wrestling Teen and Technology June 2016

Coding in Libraries

Kelly Czarnecki

What Is Coding?

Chances are most of us have heard of libraries offering coding workshops for teens or we’ve read an article or blog post about it. We might even be teaching coding workshops at libraries ourselves. Popular sites or apps we might be familiar with that help teach people to code include Scratch, Code.org/learn, or even LEGO® Mindstorms. Many coding tools are free. While each program is different and will resonate with each teen differently, there are some commonalities.  Once you become familiar with one program, because of these commonalities, each one can be a way to prepare for the next one.

With coding, participants are stringing together if/then statements to perform a result. Basically, the rules of the program dictate how code is formatted. For example, with Scratch, commands such as “move forward” or “turn right” are written on different colored blocks. When snapped together in a particular sequence, it will result in the image or object doing what you want it to do, such as moving forward. The graphics and levels of complexity vary widely. Coding is problem-solving at its best!

Why Teach Coding?

Most of us can rally behind teaching code in libraries as a way to help build teens’ STEM skills. While not specific to just coding, a recent statistic, according to an article in YALS, stated, “The top 30 fastest growing jobs projected through 2018 all have some component of STEM.” (Shannon Peterson. “Make, Do, Share: Sustainable STEM Leadership in a Box.” YALS 14 No.3 Spring 2016: 13-16). Giving teens hands-on opportunities for learning is a great way to help them connect their interests to their academics or develop work skills if they are interested.

Their math abilities can improve through coding by giving them a way to visualize problems and challenges rather than just working with abstract concepts that don’t always make sense.  By designing scenarios, they are being introduced to simulating an environment, a building block to science they’ll experience many times throughout their lives. Through the actual software program that they are using, their exposure to using various technologies is enhanced. Finally, testing and fixing their code is a great way to explore the concept of engineering.

If we’re also wanting to offer coding workshops to help teens build those soft skills such as problem-solving and critical thinking, this is a medium that can definitely help with that.  You or the teens can easily modify tasks so they can figure out how to change their code commands slightly to achieve the desired outcome. Providing opportunities for teens to work in groups can help develop their collaboration skills as well.

Telling an object how to do what you want it to do in a language that the computer will understand is resolving a challenge. We all know that figuring out challenges is part of most jobs in the workforce as well as part of preparing students for a big part of what they will be doing as part of their college coursework in higher education.

The list goes on. Coding almost seems like a one-stop shopping place to build most any skill imaginable that is valued to help teens become productive adults. However, there may also be some perceived and real challenges in implementing a coding workshop as well as a “wrong” way to do it.

Barriers to Offering Coding Workshops

First, many of us as library staff might not have any experience ourselves with coding. We may find it daunting to learn and not feel we have a lot of extra time on hand to devote to getting to know how to do it in the first place. We might even feel somewhat intimidated if it’s a skill we’re trying to build but it’s still not making a lot of sense or doesn’t come easily.

Secondly, we might not have the technology available to even consider having such a workshop in the first place. Perhaps the equipment that we do have is outdated or there just aren’t enough devices to be able to support a group program and give teens a meaningful experience. Teen Services Librarian, Tara Smith, with the West Boulevard branch at the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, has run into equipment issues when offering a coding with Arduinos program. Arduinos are circuit boards and software that run on the computer. She points out that even though the software is free and contains a downloadable .zip file that doesn’t require an install, unfortunately, the permissions on her library’s computers blocked the program from being able to go any further.

Lastly, offering coding as a “one-shot experience” might be short-changing the teens of all the skills they could learn because it’s more complex than what a one and done program can accomplish. For example, Hour of Code is a yearly challenge given on Code.org, a website that has many user-friendly coding lessons. During Computer Science Education Week, many libraries participate in Hour of Code by giving their teens the published challenge. Linda Braun, learning consultant and project manager at LEO: Librarians & Educators Online recently brings this up in her YALSA blog post. “I don’t believe we can help youth gain the skills that coding activities lead to in an isolated once-a-year program.”  Fortunately, she does offer ideas on how to expand and enhance this approach, though.

Where to begin with coding?

  • Understand the benefits and share them with administration
    If you’re trying to carve more time out of your schedule to be able to learn more about coding, even if it is just some basics or simple programs, take some time to understand the benefits first so that you can articulate them to the administration or whoever approves support for launching a new program. Getting their buy-in can help add value to you learning something new. Following up by setting small goals for yourself can keep the dialogue open and keep you on track for success!

  • Take a look at YALSA’s recent Teen Programming Guidelines document. It has ten key points for helping libraries create “relevant, outcomes-based programs to better the lives of all teens in the community.” While it’s not specific to coding programs, the guidelines definitely apply to coding as a way to help build relevant learning opportunities for teens. If you’re thinking about delving into creating a program plan with coding, the guidelines are a great start. Not only can it serve to inform administration but it can guide you in shaping how you want to go about offering coding. Do aspects of the program reflect the needs of teens in your community? That might indicate a partnership worth pursuing. Are there community or library priorities that coding would align with? You would likely want to capitalize on those as an outcome for the program.
  • In her same blog post mentioned above, “My problem with Hour of Code”, Braun offers five ideas on expanding and enhancing one-shot workshop to something more sustainable that will likely build the skills you set out to. The first idea includes taking the approach of what is called ‘design thinking’. In other words, as part of the workshop, teens would tackle some real life problem they’d like to solve. Coding is integrated into the series workshop but it is only part of the bigger picture that may also include research as well as talking to others about the problem they are trying to solve. This might also help lessen some of the pressure you might feel in having to know more about coding than you do. Since it’s not the focus of the entire project and teens are learning by having a broader foundation in problem-solving this way it’s a win-win for both.
  • Teen Services Specialist Marie Harris, with the ImaginOn branch of the Charlotte Mecklenburg Library, suggests a different approach to marketing the program to teens that will likely spark their interest. For example, teens can program an Arduino that would allow them to shoot Silly String. For this project, Marie states, “I would probably start by introducing the end product to get teens interested.  “Want to learn how to write computer code?” would get very different responses from “Want to learn to make a jack-o-lantern that shoots Silly String at people?”
  • To work around some of the hardware and software barriers, Tara Smith recommends checking devices well in advance so that if there are any access needs, hopefully, it’s something that can be solved in time for the program. While this might seem like common sense, we often take it for granted that a program will work especially if it doesn’t require an install. If you don’t have a dress rehearsal prior to the first workshop, you might be in for a surprise if you find out something isn’t working. It’s best to do a run through of the exact equipment you plan to use beforehand.
  • Check out YALSA ‘s programming HQ site: http://ow.ly/3sIl300dEem. Performing a search for ‘coding’ programs yields several results from public and school libraries that have developed partnerships, used free software, and won grants to administer their programs. Not only will you learn detailed instructions for the programs but how to develop intended outcomes and fit the objectives with the Future’s Report as well. This is also great information to bring to your administration if you’re working on building a case for offering why coding is important.

Feel free to share your own successes or challenges with coding programs for teens. With summer here it’s a great way to keep their young minds active and maybe even ignite their interest enough to want to further pursue their skills!

Czarnecki headshot, used with permissionKelly Czarnecki is a teen services librarian in Charlotte, North Carolina. She has written extensively on teens and technology in libraries and teaches online classes for American Library Association. In her spare time, she enjoys learning how to grill, watching the Chicago Bulls, and training for her next triathlon.

 

 

 

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