RHS grad teaches kids how to code
Pick up any recent magazine or blog that follows the tech industry, and one is almost certain to find an editorial from Silicon Valley executives bemoaning the bottleneck of computer programmers coming out of America’s school system.
To hear them tell it, coding is as vital to learning today as literacy, as more and more jobs turn over to automation.
That’s the gap Tara Stokes tried to bridge this summer by teaching an introductory class on coding at the Ridgefield Library.
“I do think everyone — not just kids, but everyone — should learn how to code,” Stokes told The
Press. “Even at a most basic form.”
Stokes taught two classes — a four-day course with fourth- and fifth-graders, and a two-week course with middle school students.
“In order to properly code, you need to be able to use computational thinking,” Stokes said. “Being able to take a problem, figure out the answer, and then figure out the steps you need to get to the answer — that can apply to other things in life.”
The device Stokes used to teach her students coding is called a Raspberry Pi — a simple, cheap computer that comes with a host of online resources to teach basic computer science. The library provided the equipment since it hopes to continue the program in the near future.
Stokes’ batch of young coders showed off what their projects, which they worked on in partnerships, at a presentation at the library on Aug. 18.
One pair had programmed the device to beep when a signal went off — a safety aide at street crossings for the blind. Another student had copied the viral mobile game Flappy Bird to play on a grid of LED lights plugged directly onto the top of his Pi, which he played by tilting the device.
Stokes said programmers around the world will post their creations to the web for anyone to copy free of charge — everything from animations to entire games.
Although the Pi was originally developed as an education tool by the UK-based Raspberry Pi Foundation, Stokes said that the device became wildly popular among amatuer coders and the ‘maker’ community for its low price and adaptable nature.
“My parents are both really into Raspberry Pis,” Stokes said. “We have a downstairs freezer that’s hooked up to a Pi, so if the freezer gets left open, the Pi pings my dad’s cellphone.”
Stokes decided to start with the basics, covering the programming language Python, which she said was written with non-programmers specifically in mind.
“It’s the closest thing to English that there is in a coding language,” Stokes said.
“The first thing we did is called ‘turtle graphics,’ which is essentially a drawing tool with Python … It’s kind of like the level of things you can do in Paint,” she said, referring to the simple drawing program that comes free with Microsoft Windows.
A 2014 graduate of Ridgefield High School, Stokes first got involved in the library after coming in for a 3D-printing orientation.
She enters her fourth year at UConn this fall, where she’s taking an extra year to graduate with a dual major in electrical engineering and molecular cell biology.
While she expects to have her hands full academically this next year, Stokes plans to keep teaching code to young students in some capacity in the future.
“My dream would be to get something like this in the high school,” she said.
Stokes said that learning code in high school has a high entry barrier — Ridgefield High only offered an AP level code class when she attended.
After graduating high school, she tried to join a “codeclub” — local organizations set up by the Raspberry Pi Foundation to get kids and teens interested in coding — but found none in the area.
That’s when she approached Dorothy Pawlowski, head of adult services at the library, who agreed to let her teach the class.
“There’s a big stigma about getting into code — like code’s just for programmers who go to college,” Stokes said. “But for kids, it’s especially easy. They pick up on things incredibly quickly … I guess it’s the whole formative years thing.”
She’s not the only one surprised by how successful the classes have gone this summer.
“The programs that Tara conceived of and offered were beyond our expectations,” said Pawlowski. “She has a rare talent to teach complex material in an engaging and age-appropriate way.”
Stokes said the most important step is helping kids get started.
“If they find something that they really enjoy, they’ll go home and they’ll look it up and they’ll keep doing it,” Stokes said. “So all you need to really do is just get the interest there, and show them what coding can do.”