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Issue 58

Teaching kids how to code

Erika Kramarik
Marketing manager @ Cartea Daliei
OTHERS

Out of all IT employees in Cluj-Napoca, 40 people from five companies stand out with a more unusual routine. Once a week, for an hour, they volunteer to coordinate coding clubs for five classes of 4th graders in local schools. With the help of Scratch, the students learn about algorithms in a friendly environment. They learn how to animate characters and create small games. All the clubs have the same purpose: to prepare the students for a labor market that is becoming more digitalized.

Scratch clubs are part of the Adopt a school! project, belonging to our association, Dalia's Book (Cartea Daliei), which facilitates partnerships between companies and schools in Cluj. The employees of the companies involved organize technology-based activities with the students of the 'adopted' school.

"Dalia's Book wants to connect technology with education. We set out to make both parties aware of the needs that currently exist in education and on the labor market. We've been very happy to see the openness with which the companies received this project and the way they embraced to act as facilitators for the Scratch clubs", says Oana Ciherean, Dalia's Book founder.

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The idea of the project bloomed out of the short-term activities of the association, where volunteers would go to schools and use games on tablets, to introduce the students to the basics of coding or to show them the value of educational games.

"Our first supporters were our partners from SAP Romania, with whom we have been collaborating since 2016. Starting from there, the project snowballed. We had volunteers from iQuest, Yonder, Xoomworks, Evozon join us. There are now 40 volunteers, who are running clubs at Emil Isac Secondary School, George Barițiu National College, Sigismund Toduță Music College, Ioan Bob Secondary School and the Athletic Programs Highschool. There are 118 students involved, a class from each school. We also have the support of the Cluj-Napoca City Hall and Council, as well as the Cluj County School Inspectorate", Oana explains.

We chose to use the Scratch coding language because it is accessible. Scratch works as an application and as an online community, developed and maintained by a team at MIT Media Lab. It was made especially for children, but people of all ages use it. The app is open source, with valuable resources created around it, as it is used in over 150 countries. It uses visual tags and characters, so the students have a lower chance of making mistakes when creating code. Most importantly, when people learn to use Scratch, they learn important strategies in solving problems, creating projects, communicating the ideas they have.

A company that takes ownership and adopts a school organizes a group of company volunteers who facilitate the club. We make sure the volunteers have all the resources to be prepared: we hold a training to help them get the basics of Scratch, offer teacher manuals as well as exercise books for the students. We are always available to help volunteers with advice when they hit roadblocks. We get to see all the small and big successes happening in the school computer labs. After all, the best place to see the results of the volunteers' involvement is in the classrooms, in the reactions and the progress of the students.

Denisa, 10 years old, tells us, as she changes the background of her project about how she learned to make objects move: "I learned how to make the sun move, and make it talk with speech bubbles. I like how to make objects bigger or smaller. I like that I get to work with my classmate." Her classmate, a girl, starts talking about their new 'teachers': "I like that they are nice and interesting, and that they talk with each of us and help us when we get stuck", Maria explains. Their feelings reflect the feelings of their classmates, but also the experiences of the volunteers.

Vasile Dubovici is Associate Business Consultant at SAP and coordinates the 4th grader club at Emil Isac Secondary School every Friday morning. "It is a real pleasure for me to go and meet the children. My day starts differently once I teach them. I see them do a project and, at the end of the class, I feel like I have an outcome. When I get to see the kids happy, it's perfect. I know I've done a good job when one of them actually forgets about the break."

The joy Vasile talks about is also to be found at the George Barițiu National College, where Ciprian Căprioară, Software Engineer at iQuest, volunteers. There, six volunteers are welcomed by 22 students every week. "We found the students to be enthusiastic and curious. They learned faster than we expected - as we were doing the accounts for everyone, some were already playing and understanding many of the app's functionalities", he says.

In truth, in each club, the students come with an open curiosity to know more. Their thirst for knowledge is something Andrei Chirilă, HR Specialist at Evozon, also came across. He volunteers at the 4th grader club from the Athletic Programs Highschool. "In the beginning, the students didn't understand why we were there. After we told them about Scratch and that they would be able to create games themselves, they were a lot more attentive and open. When they started using the application, the class passed very quickly. They couldn't wait to see us again the following week", recalls Andrei.

With each club meeting , the students become more competent in creating what they imagine via Scratch. As they advance, the project reveals its rewards, but also its challenges, which are, after all, something every teacher has to confront. How can we make sure each student gets to the same level? How can we explain so that everyone understands? How can we convince the more advanced to become mentors for their classmates? For each volunteer involved in the project, the way in which they respond to these questions becomes their greatest reward. This is what happened to Ioana Someșan, Software Developer at Yonder. She and her colleagues are coordinating the club at the Sigismund Toduță Music College.

"What I like the most is how their faces light up when they understand something or create something new. Each time they finish a new sequence, they celebrate and want to share what they've done, with us as well as with each other", she says.

As we are following each club, we witness the student's joy and the way they progress encourages volunteers to keep going. Despite many of them getting involved because they felt they could see their impact, volunteers discover that they are learning about themselves and about how they approach their work. "I never thought that teaching children is so consuming. The kids are very enthusiastic and curios, they are noisy and funny, they are smart and beautiful. The feeling we have at the end of each class, when we see that everybody understands what we have just explained, is priceless, and so incredibly rewarding," says Silvia Codoban, Marketing Specialist at Xoomworks. She and her 8 colleagues adopted the Ioan Bob Secondary School, where they were welcomed with open arms.

The volunteers of the Adopt a school! project learn from their students to find joy in what is in front of them. They remember what it is like to persevere and celebrate each success wholeheartedly, like only children know how to. This optimism is something that stays with them, which they bring back to their offices, their work, and their day-to-day life.

Beyond the positive experience everyone experiences, the real impact of the club is in the competencies the students develop through the projects they create.

"The students learn to work in teams, to be creative, to think systematically about how to approach the projects they are faced with", Oana, Dalia's Book founder, explains. "The competencies they develop will be useful to them no matter what profession they choose. There may be, among them, future developers, scientists, doctors, artists, maybe even astronauts. There's no way of knowing what they will become when they grow up, but we do know that whatever they choose, digitalization and automation will be the things that they will come across. We want to give them all the knowledge and tools, so that they can fulfill their dreams and reach their full potential", she concludes.

However, before these students have to decide what to become when they grow up, they have to face the challenge offered by the Adopt a school! project: a Game Jam happening in July, where the teams from the five clubs will create a project on a given theme, in one day. In other words, there will be a hackathon where the students will get to test their knowledge. And for that, they will need all the support they can get - from us, from the volunteers, and from you - the ones that are willing to get involved.

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