Teaching Computer Programming Through Making in Oakland’s Fruitvale

Students in the lab of Code Next, an after-school program put on by Google. MIT Media Lab developed the curriculum.

Students in the lab of Code Next, an after-school program put on by Google. MIT Media Lab developed the curriculum. (Google)

Making computer programming a part of the K-12 curriculum is becoming  a rallying call in the United States. But just because you teach a subject doesn’t mean you get kids interested in it. So the real challenge is how to get kids, who might not necessarily be into computers, to pursue a career in coding?

Google and MIT’s Media Lab are trying to answer that question at Code Next,  an after-school program located in the Fruitvale neighborhood of Oakland. Coding programs put on by tech companies are often in a Google office or held at a local school. But Code Next is a storefront space in a shopping center next to the Fruitvale BART Station. The idea is to capture high school students from this working-class neighborhood.

Valeria Fornes, 14, says that, until now, the extent of her computer skills has been helping her dad troubleshoot his smartphone. She goes to a high school a few miles up the street.

“The most fun thing I’ve made is using the 3-D printer and I made a game,” Fornes said.

By game, Valeria means a board game. The one she made had little pieces that fit inside the board. It took a few tries to make those pieces fit, she said, but she figured it out. What does making a board game have to do with coding computers?

“Everything’s just a big puzzle,” Fornes said. “Like if something doesn’t work, you have to rearrange almost everything.”

And that process is similar to coding, said April Alvarez, the after-school program’s experience manager. She was part of a team that worked with community members and students to develop the program.

The idea is simple: coding is also making, and it takes the same problem-solving skills as making stuff in real life. Google teamed up with MIT’s Media Lab to create the Code Next curriculum.

The lab space where students work is the size of a classroom, only with a 3-D printer and laser cutter along one wall. The lab has an industrial feel; the floors are concrete, the ceiling is exposed. Alvarez said the architecture has been carefully planned to reflect Code Next’s teaching philosophy.

“We wanted kids to see the inner workings of this space,” she said. “We want them to see the pipes, the wiring, everything that makes this place work.”

Instead of lectures on programming, students at Code Next are assigned projects — like making a board game. Instead of teachers, Code Next has coaches. Many are trained classroom teachers, though they don’t necessarily have coding skills. Together, the students and coaches figure out how to make stuff.

Bryson Gauff is a coach and was helping students create the graphics for a sticker on the computer.

“What’s been really cool for me is, not being a coder, learning with the kids,” Guaff said.

Creating a New Model

Hadi Partovi has done a lot of thinking about how to teach computer programming in elementary and high schools. He’s the CEO and co-founder of Code.org, a nonprofit that provides computer science curriculum and teacher training to K-12 schools. Code.org is used in about 120 school districts nationwide and is funded by tech companies like Microsoft, Facebook and Google.

“These are relatively new ideas,” Partovi said. “They’re broadly seen as a way to get students engaged but they’re not broadly used.”

Partovi said in college he learned computer programing by taking notes while listening to an expert programmer give a lecture. He says that approach generally works for students who are already into coding, but it’s failed to hook students who aren’t. And it’s these students educators need to reach.

Last year more than 600,000 tech jobs went unfilled in the United States. Tech companies and the Obama administration have pushed to make computer science a part of the K-12 curriculum. But even in California, home of Silicon Valley, a large majority of high schools don’t offer classes in computer programming.

“This is still a relatively nascent field and the majority of our public schools don’t teach it. And so computer science really lends itself to a new pedagogical model,” Partovi said.

He said universities from Harvard to Carnegie Mellon — and MIT with Code Next — have been taking the lead in creating a new model. While Google plans to open a similar after-school program in Harlem next year, MIT says the immediate goal is to use the programs to figure out a curriculum that works and get educators to adopt it.

This story is part of our ongoing series on Techquity: Diversity, Inclusion and Equity in Silicon Valley. 


Queena Sook Kim

Queena Sook Kim is the Senior Editor of the Silicon Valley Desk. In this role, she covers the intersection of technology and life in the Bay Area. 

Before taking this post, Queena was the host of The California Report. The daily morning show airs on KQED in San Francisco, one of the nation’s largest NPR affiliates, and on 30 stations across the state. In that role, she produces and reports on news, politics and life in the Golden State. Queena likes to take sideways look at the larger trends changing the state. One of her favorite stories asked why Latino journalists “over’pronounce” their Spanish surnames as a way of looking at how immigration is creating a culture shift in California.

Before joining The California Report, Queena was a Senior Reporter covering technology for Marketplace, the daily business show that airs on public radio. Queena covered daily tech business stories and reported on larger technology trends. She did a series of stories looking at role of social engineering in hacking and on a start-up in Silicon Valley that’s trying to use technology, instead of animals, to make meat that bleeds.

Queena started her career as a business journalist at the Wall Street Journal, where she spent four years covering the paper, home building and toy industries. She wrote A1 stories about the unusually aggressive tactics KB Home took against its home buyers. and the resurgence of “Cracker” architecture in Florida. She also wrote section front stories on marketing trends and

As a journalist, Queena has spent much of her career helping start-up editorial products. She was on the founding editorial team of The Bay Citizen, an experimental, online news site in San Francisco that was funded by the late hillbilly billionaire Warren Hellman. In 2009, Queena received a grant from the Corporation of Public Broadcasting to start-up a podcast called CyberFrequencies, which reported on the culture of technology. She also helped start-up two radio shows - Off-Ramp and Pacific Drift - for KPCC, the NPR-affiliate in Los Angeles. Off-Ramp was awarded 1st Place for news and Public Affairs programming by the PRINDI and the L.A. Press club. Queena’s stories have appeared on NPR’s Day to Day, Hearing Voices, WNYC’s Studio 360, WBUR’s Here and Now, BBC’s Global Perspectives and New York Times’ multimedia page.

In 1994, Queena won a Fulbright Grant to teach and study in Seoul, South Korea. She was also selected to be a Teach For America Corps Member in 1991 and taught elementary school in the Inglewood Unified School District in Southern California.

Queena is a frequent public speaker and has given talks at UC Berkeley, Stanford University, San Francisco State University, PRINDI conference and the Craigslist Foundation Boot Camp. Queena went to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism and graduated cum laude from New York University with a B.A. in Politics. She grew up in Southern California and lives in Berkeley, Ca in a big fixer on which she spends most weekends, well, fixing.

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