Fixing the Bugs: Teaching Kids to Code on a Zero-Dollar Budget

Fixing the Bugs: Teaching Kids to Code on a Zero-Dollar Budget


When it comes to teaching students to code, finding cheap or free software isn’t the problem. (Just check out the array of free products in our EdSurge Coding Guide.) But finding cheap or free personnel who are trained in curriculum and coding instruction? Now, that’s a challenge.

In comes Google, who hopes to solve that problem with CS First--a program designed by a team of educators and computer scientists to get students interested in coding through after-school and summer programs, but at a very low cost. In fact, the average cost of running a CS First club? Zero dollars--if you follow Google’s model.

“We wanted grassroots community support for computer science,” says Google’s CS First Program Manager, Kate Berrio. “So we decided to create this program.”

According to Berrio, the goals of CS First have always been to get middle school kids more confident when using computers and coding. But while planning the program, she and her team recognized that they didn’t have to reinvent the wheel to create a coding blueprint for schools, clubs, and communities to adopt.

"There are a lot of programs out there,” Berrio starts. “We didn't just want to create the 13th program, but we wanted to look at what's out there and what we could piggyback off of or scaffold around."

So, that’s exactly what Berrio and her team did. After hiring teachers and programmers in the summer of 2013, the team put together curriculum for the program that blended scaffolding around a free tool with volunteer teachers and a bottom-up organizational strategy.

How It Works: Scratch and Thematic Curricula

When a CS First club launches, there are three no-cost elements needed to run it--Scratch, curriculum that teachers kids the fundamental strategies and concepts behind every coding language, and gurus.

First up, Scratch. When a middle school student joins a CS First club, he/she walks into a room where he/she will receive 2.5 hours of chosen “theme” content each week, for four weeks. The main tool used to teach coding is Scratch, which Berrio and her team chose after surveying the coding tool landscape. “It's creative, it's welcoming, and it doesn't necessarily have a barrier syntax,” she explains. By the way, it’s free.

Berrio also stresses her belief in the integration of other subjects or students’ interests with Scratch.

“If a child sees ‘computer science club’ up on the wall, they might be hesitant to join. But if they see ‘computer science and fashion,’ or ‘computer science and music,’ it can draw them in and help them to not feel intimidated,” she explains.

With Scratch as the foundation, CS First’s thematic curricula acts as the structure and scaffolding; example “themes” include “Scratch Music & Sound” or “Scratch Game Design,” where students learn how to code “some basic video game building blocks, such as making a character move around the screen, interact with other characters, and score points.” And at the end of every theme, students engage in a final project, like creating their very own Scratch video game.

How It Works: Gurus

Scratch and thematic curricula are only two of CS First’s zero-cost elements. Berrio and her team are strong supporters of in-person instruction, or what they refer to as volunteer “Gurus.”

When it came to planning out the program, Berrio had low-income South Carolina neighborhoods in mind. “These aren't necessarily the type of kids that will or have the chance to hop on a MOOC,” she admits. “South Carolina is 3rd state from the bottom in terms of low Wifi connectivity in homes.” Google’s solution? Provide a mentor to be there in these clubs when the kids need them.

When students come into a club, the Guru opens with a “welcome” and intro discussion. Afterwards, when students throw on headphones to begin their CS First curriculum/Scratch tutorials, Gurus rotate around the room offering advice and assistance. If students have a question, they throw up a sticky note on their monitor for Gurus to see, meaning few classroom interruptions.

Photo Credit: CS First Website

All Gurus are volunteers who help club members navigate the club videos and materials, keep sessions on schedule, and offer support and encouragement in partnership with "teacher hosts" (essentially professional educators who represent the school where the club is held). Gurus are trained by the CS First team upon indicating interest, and don’t need a computer science or education background to help. (Want to volunteer? Sign up here.)

Couple that with Google’s offer to pay for any other incidentals (“We can provide headphones and printed materials,” Berrio shares), and you’ve got yourself a free, no frills coding club.

But zero-cost aside, is it an effective way to teach kids to code? Do they enjoy what they’re doing?

The Launch and Educator Reactions

CS First piloted and iterated on their program with 1200+ students in the Charleston, South Carolina area from August 2013 to April 2014. Google collected pre and post club survey data, detailing students’ reactions to coding, and aggregated it across all clubs in the Charleston area:

  • Students agreeing with “I can create things with Computer Science” increased by 25%.
  • Students answering “yes” to “Do you like programming?” increased by 29%.
  • Students agreeing with “If I get stuck on a computer problem, I might know how to fix it” increased by 22%.
  • Students answering “yes” to “Do you think computer science is cool?” increased by 26%.
  • Students answering “I don’t really understand computer science” decreased by 34%.

Individual administrators from Charleston schools back up these numbers as well. Ingrid Dukes, Principal of the College Park Middle School in Berkeley County, SC, had 112 of her 740 students take part the program in three separate sessions (two in the fall of 2013 and one in the spring of 2014). When asked about the effect the program had on students, she shared this story:

“We offer a course called “Project Lead the Way,” which is a pre-engineering class run with grant money from Boeing and using all engineering and architecture software. After kids took this Google camp, there was higher interest from kids wanting to do more [with Project Lead the Way]... They would use a tool at CS First and ask, ‘Can I use this on the Boeing project?’ When you have an 8th grader who’s stepping out of his comfort zone, that’s huge.”

Now, keep in mind--not everything will be perfect the first time around. Dukes explains that during the initial CS First fall session, Gurus had a “hard time seeming to be able to break it down for the kids,” with the “it” referring to certain coding concepts. But she reports that following her feedback to Google, the CS First team sought to improve their teaching methods, which were improved “the second time around.”

And despite any setbacks, Dukes cannot hide her affection for the program. "What Google is putting in these kids’ hands is career and technical-ready skills. And if they roll this thing out on the scale that they intend, it can be a huge game-changer for kids in this country."

Interested in starting your own CS First club? Check out the site for more information as Google looks to scale the program across the United States.

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