Students seldom learn computer programming skills before receiving college-level education. However, a class in Highland is now teaching fifth- and sixth-graders skills that could land them a high-paying job right out of high school, no college required.
Ten young faces filled a classroom in the Highland Public Library on Feb. 7, ready to learn computer skills that even many adults do not possess.
Not a single eye strayed from the academy founder Michael Pederson as he began the class with one over-arching message: “You have the ability to make a difference, and you can use technology to make the world a better place.”
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The Junior Code Academy began two years ago with a single vision: creating a system to help young students pursue an education in computer science, programming and source code language. Pederson’s vision was inspired by his passion for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and his daughter Chasity.
Pederson had noticed that he had become consumed by his work and saw his children growing up without him.
Distressed by this thought, Pederson soon began to engage his daughter with computer science. He took her to an event called a “hack-a-thon,” where participants combine their programming abilities to find solutions to various problems using collaboration and creation.
After seeing how many young people were at the event, Chasity became enthralled with computer science and knew she wanted some of the action.
“It showed her that these people came together to solve problems with computer coding,” Pederson said. “Her first question was: ‘How do we get more kids involved?’”
From that question, Pederson decided to use his background in education to create a beta class, which was assembled from a handful of Chasity’s friends.
Pederson also contacted actual employers and found that following a path in computer programming could help students get a job that pays $40,000 to $60,000 out of high school, without any higher education.
After the success of the first class, Pederson knew he wanted to create an avenue that was an advantage for children coming out of high school with STEM knowledge.
“By 2020 there are going to be 1.4 million unfilled jobs in computer science alone (and) 3 or 3.5 million in STEM jobs,” Pederson said. “We are trying to find ways to get kids excited about this because these are jobs that we are outsourcing. We are losing these high paying jobs, which are very lucrative, that need to be filled by young people right here in our community.”
The academy has spent at least 4,000 hours engaging students and has taught classes in O’Fallon, Belleville, Maryville, at Scott Air Force base and the St. Louis Science Center.
About the class
The $600-class consists of two eight-week spring sessions and a weeklong summer day camp. The course is focused on teaching fifth- and sixth-graders the fundamentals of computer science, computer programming, Internet safety, web design and cyber entrepreneurship.
“We are so excited that the Junior Code Academy has chosen Highland,” said Highland Assistant City Manager Lisa Peck. “I think this is great for the kids and excellent for the community.”
The first eight-week course started Feb. 7 and will end March 28. After a week intermission, the second half of the course begins April 11, ending May 23. The summer camp dates have not been announced.
Students are taught through a process Pederson calls “gamification,” where students look at components of digital games and apply the same fundamentals to projects that they produce in class.
“Programming is something you can do at a young age,” Pederson said. “A lot of them are playing games already, so why not teach them how to program these games?”
The students will be taught using a program called Scratch, developed by the Lifelong Kindergarten Group at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) Media Lab. Scratch is an online program that helps students learn how to create interactive stories, games and animations.
Aside from coding, Pederson said that the class will also teach students valuable soft skills like learning collaboration, project management, peer review and troubleshooting, that are applicable in any professional situation.
“The soft skills layered inside of these classes not only make them stronger programmers but make them confident in their abilities,” Pederson said.
Parents can sit through the class with their children and are actually encouraged to attend a few of the classes. The third week of this class will address cyber safety, which Pederson said provides an avenue to knowledge that will help both kids and parents protect themselves.
Parents are also invited to two open-house nights during the class where students will present their projects.
Interested parents can still register students late if their students want to join the class, an offer that expires Feb 21. Parents intending to register their child late should contact Pederson directly at email@example.com and register on the academy website.
According to Pederson, the whole class is engaging, visually appealing and yields immediate results. The classes also lay down a foundation for students so it is easier to continue learning about harder and harder code languages. He is excited to see what is next for these kids as they continue through the program.
“Coming here to Highland has challenged us to look at the bigger picture,” Pederson said.
He hopes this class will help to build a strong curriculum that students can continue to follow through high school.
“We looked at it as how do we approach the younger generation, make it fun, interesting and give them a leg-up when they get into the harder classes,” Pederson said. “We strive to make it engaging for kids.”
The community gives back
Two representatives from the Highland Optimist Club made an appearance before the class to present a special gift.
David Callahan, the president of the club, and club secretary Kevin Hemann, presented Pederson with a $600 check that will be used to provide a scholarship for two children participating in the class.
“The Optimists want to start giving back in different ways,” Hemann said.