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Second Language

A local nonprofit teaches young students computer programming through gaming.

Allen Wise is on the verge of a breakthrough. 

It’s a Thursday afternoon in July inside the library of Liberty Elementary School in Northwest Baltimore, and scattered across the table where the 11-year-old is sitting are construction components for Snap Circuits, a toy, essentially, for rudimentary electronics education. For about 10 minutes, Wise, wearing the typical summer camp uniform of gym shorts, a T-shirt, and sneakers, has been wrestling with his current project, testing out a configuration of clips and switches—connected to packs of double A batteries—for the circuit he’s building. He flips the switch for the first time and a helicopter rotor lifts off from the table, but the board’s light bulb remains dark. No good. He flips the switch again and now light fills the bulb, but the rotor remains grounded. His glasses slide slightly as he scrunches his nose, trying to diagnose the problem with his circuit. Eventually, he rearranges several clips—blue plastic pieces with metal nubs that fasten to one another and carry electric current—and flips the switch a third time: At once, the rotor shoots into the air and the bulb lights up and a broad grin replaces the look of concentration on Wise’s face.

Across the room, 8-year-old Morgan Faulkner, with an iPad in her hands, is playing Lightbot, a computer puzzle game rooted in fundamental programming concepts. The goal of the game, she explains, is to move the small, pixelated robot along a path of blocks until it reaches a blue square. Players actually program functions, like walking forward and hopping on a block, into the game themselves by dragging a limited number of icons into the proper box. While an adult visiting the classroom barely makes it past the first level, Faulkner, whose braided hair rises only inches above the library’s check-out desk as she works, has already progressed through level two, using computer programming procedures that allow her Lightbot to make additional moves and travel along longer courses.

“Did you get the last one?” Faulkner asks the visitor, who shows her his iPad screen. She laughs, and then notices the mistake: His Lightbot is standing atop a blue square, but hasn’t lit it up because it’s out of moves. He needs to program an additional procedure. She hands back the iPad and says, “I think that means a no.”

Faulkner, Wise, and about 60 other Baltimore City Public Schools students from kindergarten through fifth grade are in the throes of a summer camp organized by Code in the Schools, the brainchild of husband-wife duo Mike and Gretchen LeGrand. Since spring 2013, the nonprofit—through its after-school instruction both during and in between academic years—has been teaching science and technology concepts to Baltimore City elementary, middle, and high school students. The children in Code in the Schools classes learn to design their own circuits and build their own robots, but it all leads to a bigger mission: teaching students computer programming languages by having them conceptualize, design, and then program their own video games. And this school year, Code in the Schools begins the ambitious next leg of its coding curriculum. The nonprofit has contracts with four different city schools, all of which will be offering Code in the Schools-designed classes in problem-solving and algorithms, web development, and computer programming during the school day to fulfill their technology requirement.

“We teach kids to make new things by programming the computer to do new things.”

“A lot of school administrators know they have to get technology in the hands of the kids,” says Gretchen LeGrand. “They’re all pushing to get iPads and Chromebooks, but there’s a difference between using the technology to be a consumer [and what we do]. We teach kids to make new things by programming the computer to do new things.”

As they’ve watched students take to coding, the LeGrands say they’ve seen the children’s confidence increase along with their creativity—with the secondary benefit of getting equipped with a skill that’s in demand nationally and internationally. In the Baltimore metropolitan area alone, the burgeoning technology sector already employs some 55,000 people in programming and software engineering.

“The industry is demanding these people,” says Mike LeGrand. “And on the other side of it, we have these people that need jobs. If we can just connect them, if these kids can learn these skills and get these jobs, they can get treated right and get paid well.”

Had it not been for a stroke of bad luck, however, Code in the Schools might have never existed.

Video game programming is the jumping-off point for Code in the Schools because of Mike’s professional background. A former developer at Zynga East—the Timonium office of the San Francisco-based creator of online games, including the popular Facebook game “FarmVille”—Mike lost his job in 2013 as Zynga’s stock price dropped and the company ditched locations and personnel. A generous severance package, Mike says, meant he and Gretchen didn’t have to scramble financially in the immediate aftermath.

The money proved fortuitous. Shortly after being laid off, national nonprofit introduced itself with a flashy video in which the likes of Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, musician, and NBA center Chris Bosh implored American schools to teach students how to code. (A supplementary, perhaps controversial, goal of is to change curriculum policies in the U.S. so that computer science classes can be taught alongside conventional science and math classes, counting the same in terms of credits as biology, physics, algebra, or calculus.)

“ puts out this video that’s just a straight-up call to action,” Mike says. “Why don’t we do this? Why aren’t we making this happen? So we just wanted to be the people who made it happen here.”

The next day, he was at Baltimore’s State Center asking about the paperwork to register as a nonprofit, which he and Gretchen did under the name Code in the Schools in early 2013. Today, Gretchen serves as executive director—one of only two full-time employees—and is responsible for forming partnerships with schools; recruiting teachers, usually from the ranks of current city school teachers or eager computer-science undergraduates from local universities; and developing the curriculum in tandem with program director Janelle Steffen. Mike, who has since taken a job with Federal Hill game development company Bully! Entertainment, serves as president of Code in the Schools’ board. Fundraising also falls on Gretchen’s plate, and although grant funding is usually in short supply for nonprofits without long track records, Code in the Schools has been embraced by the local Robert W. Deutsch Foundation, which has donated $100,000 to its programming efforts so far.

In the spring of 2013, the LeGrands launched their first Code in the Schools class at the Digital Harbor Tech Center, the converted South Baltimore rec center managed by Federal Hill technology education nonprofit Digital Harbor Foundation. Twenty high school students designed and displayed their own computer games, created using Kodu, the most basic of Code in the Schools’s teaching tools. The free program relies exclusively on drag-and-drop icons, much in the way Lightbot does, as students string together simple “if-then” statements to get game characters to perform basic tasks.

“Being able to only view websites is the equivalent of being able to read and not write.”

While it appears, at first glance, to be nothing more than a cute teaching tool, Kodu is actually step one toward learning a new language—computer programming—that is quickly becoming more important than the foreign languages students have traditionally been taught.

“The best analogy to make is the connection to general literacy,” says Andrew Coy, teacher-turned-executive director of the Digital Harbor Foundation. “In today’s world, being able to only view websites or other types of content is the equivalent of only being able to read and not being able to write. And not everybody is going to be a best-selling author, but it’s a type of literacy that is absolutely essential in the digital workplace.”

So far, Code in the Schools’ success has been mostly spread by word of mouth. After the first class at the tech center, Code in the Schools taught its second class at Liberty Elementary School during its summer camp last year—with 45 kids between grades three and five, spending one hour, two days a week, creating their own video games in Kodu. Some of the kids became proficient enough to move onto Scratch, another free programming language that serves as the next level up in game creation. It allows for the creation of loops, a sequence of instructions in computer programming that repeats until a certain condition is met. This year, 13 kids at a Wide Angle Youth Media partnership camp displayed their coding projects at an environmentally themed July showcase.

“It makes me feel smart,” says 10-year-old Skylar Williams, whose game “Waterfull,” features a mermaid who collects spilled oil, pizza boxes, and other trash from the ocean. It was her first time coding and Williams and her partner needed two weeks to complete their project, but she discovered she likes building games. “I’d do it again,” she says.

“[The summer coding camp] was great,” says Joe Manko, who is in his fifth year as principal of Liberty. Admittedly, students at Liberty Elementary are a bit ahead of the curve. As a former technology teacher, Manko’s heart is set on putting digital tools into the hands of all of Liberty’s 400-plus students. The school, where 93 percent of the enrolled students qualify for free and reduced lunch, currently has 330 iPads, and will be fully one-to-one—that is, every student will have their own iPad to work on—after its next round of purchasing. But computer programming, even for Manko’s tech-savvy bunch, was something entirely new.

“Every single thing that was produced, it’s all brand new learning,” he says. “It’s not like kids are coming to the table and they have this knowledge of programming.”

For Code in the Schools, this yawning gap between having computers in the schools and understanding how to program them, is a major selling point. Gretchen says that many schools in Baltimore City are equipped with computer labs and equipment that are underutilized or not touched at all. From its Charles Village headquarters, Code in the Schools has successfully run programs for students at Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, Digital Harbor High School, the SEED School, and Federal Hill Preparatory School, in addition to Liberty. This fall Code in the Schools will be handling the school-day technology instruction for students at George Washington Elementary School, St. Ignatius Loyola Academy, Federal Hill Prep, and Liberty Elementary.

The LeGrands’ efforts even make it into their own home: Snap Circuits is a favorite of their 5-year-old daughter, Justice, and yet another reminder of why Code in the Schools focuses most of its efforts on K-8 students.

“When you start them young, they don’t have a concept of how things are supposed to be done,” says Gretchen. “They just do it. They figure it out. They innovate. They find creative ways to do things. It’s amazing to watch.”

This summer, in addition to its camp at Liberty, Code in the Schools ran three other camps, including the Wide Angle Youth Media camp where students created video games in the Unity game engine, the most advanced teaching tool in the LeGrands’ arsenal, and one Mike uses regularly at Bully! Entertainment. Unity uses text only, and students generally design games using the C Sharp or JavaScript programming languages.

Whether the students know it or not, learning to code could pay dividends in the future if they choose a career in computer programming with professional web and game developers routinely commanding six-figure salaries.

But the acquisition of a hirable skill or big job is simply a side effect, albeit a potentially financially beneficial one, of Code in the Schools’ work. It’s already doing important work in bridging the “digital divide” for city students.

“There are so many things working against the youth of Baltimore already,” Mike says. “As the world gets more digital, and as programming becomes more important, they don’t even have access to it.

“Programming, there’s a joy to it,” he continues. “I’ve seen these kids go from being shy, not confident about their abilities, not hopeful about their futures, to kids who are sure of their intelligence.”