The Coder School

By Jenni Hart

Children and teens in the Cary area have a new place to learn technology. The Coder School opened in mid-October and offers students ages seven to 18 a range of classes from block-based programming to more advanced HyperText Markup Language (HTML), Python, Java and C++ coding classes. Co-owner and general manager Ravisha Weerasinghe believes the real value in learning these skills isn’t just the ability to write computer code, but in understanding how to develop
computational thinking.

Approaching a problem logically and learning how to break it down into small components is a skill that translates to many areas of life, and Weerasinghe says the disciplined thinking required to code can benefit students academically as well as in future professional pursuits. “Technology is everywhere, from smartphones to refrigerators,” she says. “Students will need some understanding of computers, even if they’re not writing code or working in the IT field.” If it’s any comfort to non-technical types, Weerasinghe says even a basic understanding is helpful. “You don’t have to be a great swimmer, but it helps to know how to dog-paddle,” she says.

The Coder School offers a variety of programs to suit the interest and needs of students and their families, from after-school and track-out classes to summer camp sessions. In the basic Code Class, it is customary to have six or seven students paired with one teacher in a traditional curriculum-based class. For kids just starting out, block-based programming using a language such as Scratch or Snap! enables students to build simple games and puzzles.

For the uninitiated, these block-based programs are sort of like visual puzzle pieces that contain code that has already been written and packaged into units, or blocks. Here’ another way of looking at it: Imagine a recipe for bread pudding that calls for cubes of bread. A sophisticated chef might begin by baking the bread from scratch using a lot of ingredients, while the average cook is more likely to buy the bread already made. That average cook is like the beginning coder using Scratch or Snap! Scratch, a product of MIT, and Snap!, from UC Berkeley, are free visual programming environments that are accessed by users worldwide, encouraging collaboration and support within their respective communities.

Weerasinghe says the relative simplicity of these languages makes them appropriate for middle school students, although occasionally a younger student may be developmentally ready to try them. “There is no pressure to advance quickly,” she says. “It’s more important that they are having fun and learning how to work together.”

In addition to the Code Class, students have the option of Code Coaching, where the ratio of students to teacher is more like two to one. Here, students choose their own project, such as a web design or a big school project, and the coach works to customize the instruction to meet the students’ objectives. “This is where a student learns to think like a coder,” Weerasinghe says. Building their own project from scratch, students are learning how to think creatively and to solve problems. “It’s important to understand that it’s OK if it doesn’t work the first time,” she adds. “Learning from
mistakes is a valuable lesson.”

One Code Coaching team, a couple of students ages 13 and 14, recently completed what Weerasinghe describes as an evolutionary based interactive game, where a species evolves along a timeline based on characteristics programmed by the students. “Then we have other students who are building their own profiles using HTML,” she adds.

Weerasinghe says all the programs the students learn are cloud-based, allowing them to access them and work from home. Parents are also able to see the work their children are doing and track how each project is progressing. “We encourage parents to play the puzzles and games their kids create,” she says. “They have a real sense of accomplishment when everything works the way they want it to.”

The most advanced offering at The Coder School is the App Team, where students not only build applications, but they also learn presentation skills and practice speaking in front of a group as they present their data. The culmination of the App Team is a formal presentation each team delivers as part of a coding fair event that takes place approximately once a quarter. “Computer technology is more than a solitary profession,” Weerasinghe says. “It’s very important to learn how to convey your messages verbally and to be a confident speaker in front of a group.”

The Coder School provides a learning center for kids with all levels of tech knowledge, but it’s clearly designed to encourage friendly connections as well. Weerasinghe understands that middle school and high school can be challenging for academically high-achieving students, especially if they are introverted or have interests outside the mainstream. She says students come a little early, or stay a few minutes after, just to catch up with each other and hang out. Making friends who share a love of technology keeps the learning fun.

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