Metro-East Living

One of these kids could be the next Bill Gates

Chasity Pedersen installs Notepad ++ on a computer at the start of a web design class at the Junior Code Academy.
Chasity Pedersen installs Notepad ++ on a computer at the start of a web design class at the Junior Code Academy. dholtmann@bnd.com

Students trickled into the Junior Code Academy’s classes on a weeknight, toting bags of laptops, power cords and earbuds, as if they were executives prepared for a business meeting.

Ten girls and boys headed to an upstairs conference room at Pier 151, a downtown Belleville business incubator, ready for a class called Introduction to Web Design. Two first-timers set up their laptops in another work area to learn the fundamentals of computer coding.

Michael Pedersen, 42, of O’Fallon, started the Junior Code Academy last year in part to spend more time with his children. He was frequently away during his military career and is now a systems engineer for the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency.

His daughter Chasity, 15, put the idea for the academy in her dad’s head.

“How can I get other kids joining me in this?” she asked him.

Chasity is “the reason we started the darn program in the first place,” Michael said with a grin. She plans to pursue a career in computer science, perhaps, she says, even working like the character Tim McGee in “NCIS.”

Chasity helps with the marketing, too, and frequently “jumps in” as an instructor, her dad said.

“Just her being here helps considerably with the youth. As a young woman, and a young woman of color, this (shows programming) is for anybody.”

Her sister, Mariyah, 14, is also an active member of the Junior Code Academy, but right now is planning a future as a veterinarian. Michael laughs and says she has no interest in coding, yet whips out the skills quite easily.

And brother Deveon, 11, has “finally found something that clicks for him,” his dad said. On a recent Tuesday night, the boy was showing off his version of DragonBall Z, where his computer characters were able to throw and dodge balls of fire.

“A lot of coding is very dry,” Michael admitted. That’s why the academy uses so much “gamification” to learn the incremental processes of coding.

His wife, Michelle, runs Kumon Math and Reading Center of O’Fallon, a math tutoring company.

A new future ahead

In November, the business won the $10,000 first prize from the SIUE Metro East Start-Up Challenge. Michael is dipping into his own savings to pay for the academy’s instructors and other costs. He plans to use the prize money for marketing to get more kids into coding.

The Academy’s six-week program costs $200 per child, and the latest classes, on computer science fundamentals and web design, started Jan. 10. It’s possible a class in February will take place in Highland.

Jackson Judy, 12, of Columbia, said that because of what he’s learned at the academy, he’s already designed a Pac-Man style game and is thinking about possible careers.

“I want to be a game designer, computer programer person,” Jackson said.

He says his friends think it’s “cool” that he is already designing games and web pages.

Other classes teach young programmers, ages 9 to 17, how to write in Python, HTML, CSS and JavaScript. Students have participated in competitive coding hackathons, or “hacking away at a problem” such as homelessness or building an application, Michael said.

Classes on Python are among 13-year-old Aya Patterson’s favorites.

“I liked Python more, how you could code something and then the computer would do it,” the O’Fallon teen said.

The class designed a “fun little test” where users input their first name and a random number, and the program would assign them a mythical creature.

“A lot of times, I was a unicorn,” Aya said.

The part-time business isn’t breaking even yet, but Michael expects it will be soon enough and the judges of the Start-Up Challenge seemed to agree.

“The fact that there’s a lot of economic impact” to his business and plan, said Jo Ann Di Maggio May, the interim director for the Small Business Development Center, pushed his application to the top of the competition.

“He’s able to help these youngsters develop a career path that is going to give them a solid future. He can expand and grow in our region, hiring instructors ... He’s doing a lot of good for the community,” Di Maggio May said.

How to make it possible

About a year ago, Michael enlisted the help of Chris Oswald, who is now the chief operations officer at Junior Code Academy. He’s also the founder of Pier 151, a business incubator in the former YMCA building in downtown Belleville. It’s where some of the coding classes are held.

The pair are developing what they call the Five C’s that drive the academy: career, community, competition, critical thinking and college.

They don’t want to just teach children some neat tricks to make games, they want to give the kids the skills to go to work. Among their goals is to develop relationships with businesses who could hire Junior Code Academy students as computer programmers, without college degrees.

“This honestly could be a replacement,” for college Michael said. “Kids graduate (from college) $100,000 in debt and are grossly underemployed.

“A lot of businesses want developers. Employers are hungry.”

Wouldn’t it be great, Michael says, if underprivileged teens could get the skills for a computer career without college? They could start earning and later attend college for advanced degrees, either with their own salary or perhaps on their company’s dime.

It’s an idea that hits especially close to home. About 10 years ago, Mike and Michelle fostered and adopted sisters Chasity and Mariyah. A few months ago, Deveon, their brother, came to live with them.

He had been fostered and later adopted by a woman who developed dementia. He had lived in the Washington Park area, and has had “a big challenge” adapting to the Pedersen home and schools in O’Fallon, Michael said.

“We could have just picked him up from a foreign country and dropped him here,” Michael said. His involvement in the academy has helped forge a new interest in learning.

Parent Rena Alailima, of O’Fallon, brought her 8-year-old daughter, Renae, to the web design class. During the two-hour class, Rena waited outside the conference room, doing her own work as a regional planner for the Missouri National Guard.

“It’s kind of a big time commitment,” she said. “But we thought it was important. They don’t get it in school, but will be using it in the future.”

Rena said her daughter has already designed a game with yes or no prompts, “kind of a ‘pick your own adventure.’”

Student Aya, who is in her fourth class with the academy, said she recognized the real-life application of computers in a cybersecurity course, where students learned what a photo reveals about a person and can compromise their safety. Her approach to taking selfies changed.

“I try to take photos where you couldn’t tell where I was. I used to (take pictures) at stores or at friends’ houses,” she said, but not anymore.

Junior Code Academy

Current classes are in Belleville. Michael Pedersen has also used spaces in O’Fallon, and is talking with Highland leaders and others in the metro-east to expand the program. For more information, go to www.juniorcodeacademy.com.

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