Learning How to Program at Seattle CoderDojo

Meilee during her first Seattle CoderDojo class. Sept. 20, 2014

Meilee began learning how to use Scratch a year ago in July (read the original post). Her first published project was called The Unicorn Ghost and its premise was rudimentary: click on the button to make the unicorn move. She played around a little and started projects, but didn’t progress beyond one-trick ponies, so to speak. Recently, I saw an in article in Geewire.com about CoderDojo, a free weekly programming club for kids ages 8-18 that was founded in Seattle but now has local clubs across the country. And the Seattle CoderDojo club meets on the Amazon campus – which is across the street from my office. After we checked in at security, the kids were each given a souvenir CoderDojo badge, which was a great touch that made them feel official.

Seattle CoderDojo badge
Seattle CoderDojo badge.

The kids who attend are divided up according to programming interest: Scratch, HTML/JavaScript, PHP, C# and Java. We found our way to the Scratch room and settled in, Meilee with my laptop and Shen with the iPad to keep him entertained. While Shen isn’t ready for Scratch, I wanted him to tag along so that he gets exposure to the club. The first 15 minutes or so of the session is spent listening to the lead mentor describe some basics of how to get started on the day’s assignment. CoderDojo has a set of projects that will help kids learn basic commands in Scratch. After the introduction, each participant can work at his/her own pace and seek help as needed from one of the volunteer mentors.

A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.
A Seattle CoderDojo mentor helps Meilee with a series of commands.

Meilee’s first challenge was to use repeat loops to draw patterns with an arrow. Doing so required some thought as to what commands to use and some basic geometry. While the math was beyond Meilee’s experience, she was lucky that one of the volunteers happened to be a math teacher.

A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.
A Seattle CoderDojo volunteer who happened to be a math teacher helped Meilee with some geometry.

What appeals to me about CoderDojo is that it provides a place to go where Meilee can be around other kids who are interested in Scratch and where she can get expert help from mentors. Best of all, the club is FREE (the magic word for DIY Tiger Mom) to attend. During a quick break, I ran into a woman in the restroom who said that the CoderDojo in New York had a waiting list of 500 kids. (500!) Luckily, that isn’t the case in Seattle. I had to ask my husband to take Meilee to the second session, because I had another appointment. Later in the day, she asked if she could show me what she learned at CoderDojo. It was so thrilling to hear her describe her thought process. As I mentioned in the post I wrote last year, I don’t necessarily want Meilee to become a software engineer. I just want her to learn how to analyze a challenge – regardless of what it is – and engineer a solution. I think she’s on her way.

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Red Bull Soap Box Derby

We went to the Red Bull Soap Box Derby, which was held (Aug. 23, 2014) downtown on Yesler Way. The course was deemed the steepest Red Bull has ever used. A bit of trivia: the base of Yesler Way used to be known as “Skid Road” because of how logs would skid down the road for the lumber mill.

Soap Box Course

I was hoping to inspire the kids to want to learn about how soap box cars are constructed. They were indeed enamored by the concept of these cars. Alas, the crowds and long wait time for the races to start diminished some of their enthusiasm. But the experience will serve as a good reference point the next time we come across some materials we can transform into a rudimentary car.

There were some preliminary runs to test the course. The Seahawks mascot, Blitz, took the first run. We were able to wedge ourselves into a small opening in the crowd on the upper course, so all we could see was two seconds of the teams as they zipped by.

Blitz Runs Course

Derby test run

We discovered later that Red Bull had set up large monitors so people could watch the races — it was easier to see the teams run the entire course via the monitors.

Derby monitor

Red Bull posted a few photos from the event. We hope to check out the next Standwood Camano Island Soap Box Derby, which is part of the All-American Soap Box Derby series of events.

Engineering a Puff Mobile

Meilee competed in the Puff Mobile competition at school. She had to make a “car” using straws, Life Savers, paper clips, tape and material for a sail (cling wrap). She won the first round to advance to the second round but didn’t make it past that. Then we celebrated with frozen yogurt.

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Engineering a Marble Run

Shen's Marble Run

For Christmas, Shen asked Santa for marbles. I’m not sure where he got that idea. He’d never spoke about marbles before and when it was his turn to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what he wished for Christmas, he said, “Marbles.” Perhaps, in the moment, Shen simply said the first thing that came to mind and forgot to say what he’d actually been talking about: Hot Wheels cars and a train set.

I found a marble run set online from Quercetti and gave that to Shen “from Santa.” It’s a low-tech toy that can scale up or down in complexity according to how many pieces you have. You can buy additional segments or sets that have motorized elevators and such. We started with the basic 45-piece set, which costs about $20. It’s still a little too challenging for Shen to set up, so I have had to help him. But he thoroughly enjoys watching the marbles wend their way through the maze of tracks. I asked him what he likes about the marble set and he replied, “I like playing with you.” (Awww.)

Quercetti Marble Run

Shen asks many questions about how things work, so I think the marble run can help him develop those engineering skills. He did construct a tall run that worked – even if it wasn’t perfectly stable. But matching the pieces to one of the design examples on the box takes a little help. The other day, we built one of the example structures and then Shen asked me to shoot a movie of him demonstrating how it works. I shot it in 3D using the Poppy (read about Poppy), but the lighting and resolution of the video aren’t great, so it’s a bit fuzzy (sorry). But I love that my usually shy Shen thought about what he wanted to say — we did three takes and he started the same each time: “Hi. I made a marble set with my mama and I can show you something really cool.” At the end, he says, “Done. Goodbye.”

Engineering Crazy Straws

Crazy Straws 1

When I was a kid, a “crazy straw” had a figure-eight loop and that was fun enough. Now, there’s the NuOp Design Strawz – kits that allow you to engineer your own crazy straw. You can find them online or at specialty stores. I found Strawz at my neighborhood grocery store on clearance for $6.50 per set (the original price was $10.95). What comes in the box are 44 pieces of long and short straws and connectors.

Crazy Straws 2

It was a no-brainer purchase – especially at a clearance price – for an easy engineering lesson veiled as fun. I purposely use the term “engineer” instead of “make” or “create” so that the kids continue to hear the word associated with the concept of designing and building solutions. To spur a little friendly competition, I told the kids that whoever had the best-designed straw would win a treat. It wasn’t necessarily a fair playing field since Shen’s fine motor skills aren’t as developed as Meilee’s. He started to pout (below) when Meilee finished constructing her straw before he did.

Cray Straws 3

But this presented an opportunity for me to encourage Meilee as the older sister to help her younger brother and to remind Shen that pouting doesn’t get the job done. They worked together to build Shen’s straw. And then they forgot that it had started out as a contest.

It’s a brilliant kit given that the kids have to think about how to join pieces together in a way that is not only crazy but functional. There is also physics involved: water sprays everywhere if the joints aren’t connected properly to the straws or, if a section of the straw is at an awkward angle, it could knock over a glass. (Yes, water spilled all over the table and the floor.) I imagine that you could hack a kit together using flexible straws. I might explore that with the kids to test their ingenuity.

Crazy Straws 4

Later, during dinner, I asked Meilee what she understood about engineering. Here was her response:

“When you engineer something, you think about how am I going to make this? What materials am I going to need to do it? When you’re building the shapes, it’s fun to learn how to connect the straws and unconnect (sic) the straws. There are different sizes of straws. The small straws help you in small places. The big straws help you in big places. You can make different kinds of things – like a sword. You can be capable of doing lots of things like a house of straws.”

Crazy Straws 5

I was glad she had an inkling, but I also didn’t hear her say something that indicated she understood the thought process behind engineering. She started to give me additional examples related to craft projects – things that weren’t necessarily focused on designing solutions – so I shifted the conversation to talking about how an engineer would approach the challenge of building a bridge across a river.

“An engineer would have to think about the distance across the river, right?” I asked. “And if it’s a highway, the bridge would have to support a lot of cars and big trucks. That would affect the kind of materials that the engineer chooses to build the bridge. If the bridge were just for people, the engineer wouldn’t have to use the same kinds of materials.”

“Logs and rope!” Meilee exclaimed.

Something clicked, but we’ll see what sticks over time. The logs and rope comment reminds me that we could use popsicle sticks to engineer a bridge. A project for another day.