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Libraries Ready to Code

Molly Kane, Head of Teen Services and Emerging Technologies

Mr. Kirk was my 4th grade computer teacher. He did everything he could to convince us to call him Captain Kirk, but he didn’t really have the swagger of William Shatner and it never really stuck. I think this made him think that we thought he was uncool, but honestly, my clearest memories from 4th grade were being in his classroom learning to code. We made mazes, wrote our own games, and learned the skills necessary to change the color scheme on any computer. Coding (we used BASIC) made me feel cool and that in turn made him cooler than Captain Kirk, Spock, and Bones combined.

To be fair, I actually started coding long before 4th grade. I cut my teeth on my father’s Commodore 64, a machine that still sits in my parents’ attic and that none of us can quite bring ourselves to get rid of. Da let me use his computer whenever he wasn’t on it and while I tended towards the word processing program, I also had a dog-eared copy of Assembly Language for Kids: Commodore 64. Most of it went way, way above my head and I mostly just skimmed the page looking for the prewritten code I could copy, but it was enough to make me feel like I was doing something substantial.

The older I got, the further I drifted from coding. I still used computers (and a Brother word processor) daily, but I had less time to get involved with HOW the programs I was using were created and maintained. I wasn’t a math or science person, I was a word person! I was going to be a journalist, or, barring that, an English teacher.  Computers were going to be a tool I used in my future, but that didn’t mean that I needed to know how they worked.

Then I became UDPL’s emerging technologies librarian.

When we designed, built, and equipped the STEAM Lab, we immediately knew that Coding & Robotics were one of the technology areas we wanted to focus on. We bought coding robots (Ozobots, Sphero, Dot & Dash) and I waded back into to coding. My experiences as a kid gave me a theoretical understanding of how code works, but all of the newest programs and languages to get kids involved were completely new to me. Thankfully the modern-day entry point to coding doesn’t require much more than the ability to put digital blocks together.

Blockly (very similar to MIT’s Scratch) is the open-source brainchild of Google and is a way of creating a visual representation of code. From the user’s point of view, you simply string a series of blocks with brief commands together to make SOMETHING do SOMETHING. (Sometimes the “something” is a robot, sometimes the “something” is a sprite on the screen.) Here’s an example:

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From the back end, though, those blocks translate into a code that looks a lot more like what we think of when we hear “code.” (This is a translation into JavaScript.)

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When you see the two together, compare them side-by-side, coding suddenly seems less intimidating and much easier to understand. This is what’s made it possible for UDPL to offer coding classes and workshops. Both the Ozobots and Dash robot use versions of Blockly in their programming. Along with offering intro workshops to Blockly/Scratch and robotics, UDPL has hosted the National STEM Video Game Challenge, Girls Who Code, and Tech Girlz programs. I’ve taught students in elementary, middle, and high school about coding. And just last week I started experimenting with a Code-A-Pillar, a coding robot designed for children as young as three. (He’s going to make his debut in Miss Jenn’s Preschool STEAM program in March!)

I was also asked to participate in an American Library Association study about coding programs for children and teens in libraries. I served on a panel with twenty-five other public and school librarians from across the country who have introduced coding into their programs and curriculum. It was amazing to hear what other libraries are doing and encouraging to see the UDPL is on the forefront of the Libraries Ready To Code revolution! (If you’d like to read the ALA report, you can view it by clicking here.)

I’m grateful that I learned coding basics all those years ago with Mr. Kirk and my father’s Commodore 64. They gave me the foundation to develop UDPL’s coding programs and introduce a new generation to how satisfying it can be to make SOMETHING do SOMETHING.