Thursday, 5 February 2015

Code Club - day 1

I've been working in the software industry for over 23 years. Yeah, that's scary! I like to think I've learnt a bit over those years, and I've been inspired to give something back.

It started a few years ago when the owner of the company I work at first mentioned about wanting to "give back to the community". That struck a chord with me, but nothing really happened for a long time, although I had been mulling it over in the back of my mind - how can I do that?

Finally, 2 years ago I was driving past my local community centre when I saw a big banner outside about offering Internet Advice and how to use computers in general. I contacted them and they were only too happy to accept assistance.  (By the way, Get Safe Online is fantastic for a wealth of information about being safe online.)

I was pleased to have given my time to a good cause, but something still wasn't right. I'm a software developer, and I wanted to do something to help and inspire budding software developers.

I had seen Bill Liao at ACCU 2014 give his keynote speech about Coder Dojo. The year before, Eben Upton was there talking about the Raspberry Pi.   Yes - getting children interested in coding was the missing link.

So how to approach this? To be honest, organising and arranging a club from scratch was a bit daunting. You can't just organise a club and expect children to attend; there are a few things you have to do first...!

About 6 months ago a friend told me about an organisation called Code Club Pro. His brother is a teacher, and Code Club Pro is organisation of volunteers that "teach the teachers" about coding. There is a partner organisation called Code Club which turned out to be exactly what I was looking for: teaching kids about coding.

It couldn't have been easier - volunteers register on the website, and schools and other organisations looking for volunteers also register. Volunteers can search for organisations, an initial contact email is sent via the website and it progresses from there.  The website helps you to plan your club and deal with important points about DBS checks and insurance. They recommend joining STEMNet to become an Ambassador. After an induction session at STEMNet, you will have your DBS certificate and insurance.

Great luck - I found a school just a couple of miles from the office. Communication was simple, a few email exchanges, and an introductory meeting at the school was arranged. The teacher was really enthusiastic about the club and was pleased to have found a volunteer. The timing was just spot on - the meeting was at the end of November, and the school was planning to start the Code Club in January for the new term.

However, the club was due to start on the 13th January, but the STEMNet induction session was scheduled for the day after; the 14th January. Not having done this sort of thing before, I thought the best thing was to get the school to organise the DBS check.

Word of warning - if you're getting a DBS check, don't forget to sign up to the 'update service' - this allows other organisations to perform a check on you via the government's official channels.  Without signing up to this, other organisations may want you to apply for a new DBS certificate. This was the case with me - I now 2 certificates - one via the school and one via STEMNet!  There's nothing wrong with that, it's just that it can take time to get a new certificate each time.

So - now everything is set for the first session.  What to do? Code Club have a great set of projects for volunteers (or anyone for that matter) to use - Scratch projects, HTML & CSS, and Python.   I knew the children had already been using Scratch in their lessons, but I didn't know how much they knew.  Best to start at the beginning.

So, the first session has happened.  I admit to having been slightly nervous about it, never having interacted with such a big group of children before (and I'm not a parent).  In my mind, I was seeing the children, sitting quietly at their computers, listening to me talking about coding and helping them with the first lesson.  How naive was I? Children are children.  They were by no means boisterous or out of control; they were just more... well, more active... than I anticipated! In hindsight I think it actually helped. They were all of different skill levels, and I was pleased to see that they were naturally helping each other out when they got stuck. Thanks to the teacher for being there for crowd control! (Which is actually a requirement for being covered by STEMNet's insurance.)

When you're planning your sessions, it would help to find out exactly what facilities the school has. In particular, which versions of software do they have?  The Scratch lessons at Code Club are written for version 2.0.  My club is using version 1.4. It's not a showstopper, since I'm managing to adapt the lessons for 1.4.  Also, I found out that some of the computers didn't have sound capability configured properly - a bit unfortunate when you're planning a project called "Rock Band"!!

I underestimated how long we would need; I thought an hour would be plenty, but we rushed a bit towards the end.  Still, I am very satisfied with how it went, and it gave me some ideas as to how to plan the next sessions.

Some tips for would-be volunteers:
  • Get your DBS and insurance via STEMNet early enough to be in place for when your Code Club starts. You don't have to be actively volunteering to get a certificate.
  • Sign up to the DBS update service when you get your certificate. (You get 20 days to do this.)
  • Do check with the school exactly what facilities they have. E.g. versions of software, internet access, can you bring in files on USB key?, etc.
  • Don't procrastinate - just do it!
We've now run a few sessions and I'm so pleased with how it's going. Most importantly, the children are still interested and are enjoying the sessions! As am I!

Thanks to the following people for giving me the inspiration to do something:
  • Dave Knight, the owner of Igence for wanting to "give back to the community"
  • Bill Liao and Eben Upton, for the giving the keynotes at the ACCU conferences
  • Will Benyon, for putting me on to Code Club
Find out more about Code Club, and in particular, here's the page to register!
Find out about STEMNet here.

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