Computer coding pilot course helps prepare students for the careers of tomorrow

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Ana Jacinto, Katera Boss and Karina Arevalo, students of Tamarack Waldorf School, work together on their final project, a game to solve the mystery of missing homework. (Photo by Edgar Mendez)

Sitting in front of a desktop computer in a classroom on the third floor of South Campus of Carmen High School of Science and Technology, Katera Boss and her classmates, Karina Arevalo and Ana Jacinto, type in a language that is difficult for the untrained eye to read. Students write code, the basic programming language that allows computers to execute predefined commands. The girls build a game that solves a centuries-old mystery. Where did the missing homework go?

“I’m learning a lot about computers making this game. Learning to code is something I’ve always wanted to do, but never had the chance,” Boss said.

For two weeks, Boss, a junior from Tamarack Waldorf School, and eight other teens took part in Layton Boulevard West’s Code Academy, a pilot computer programming course that teaches them skills they can use to build careers in an increasingly tech-driven society.

Computer programming is the process of developing a script of instructions, or codes, that allow computers to perform certain functions. Actions can range from commanding the computer to automatically execute a command such as sending a daily email to creating a video game character that performs an animation, said Ben Juarez, who has got the idea of ​​the class.

Juarez, a Public Policy Forum researcher and resident of Layton Boulevard West, created it as part of his participation in Neighborhood Leadership Institute development program at Cardinal Stritch University. The program pairs two people living or working in a Healthy Neighborhood of the Greater Milwaukee Foundation, in this case Layton Boulevard West, to work together on a plan for the benefit of their neighborhood.

Ben Juarez (right) helps eighth grader Allen De Windt with his project.  (Photo by Edgar Mendez)

Ben Juarez (right) helps eighth grader Allen De Windt with his project. (Photo by Edgar Mendez)

Juarez teamed up with Araceli Arevalo, community organizer for Clarke Square and Layton Boulevard West in Safe and sound. Together, they secured a mini-grant from Safe and Sound to fund the class and recruited young people to participate, including Arevalo’s daughter, Karina.

“The goal is to help children understand what to expect in the future,” said Juarez, who learned programming on his own three years ago. What awaits them is a world where even white-collar jobs are becoming automated, Juarez added.

The students, all ages 12 to 17, spent the first week of the coding class learning the building blocks of Java, a programming language and a computer platform. The last two weeks have been spent on a project that will be unveiled at a graduation ceremony this weekend. It has been a bumpy road so far as coding is not an easy skill to master, some students admitted. But, it has been gratifying, said Jacinto and others.

“Coding is difficult. But I find it exciting to learn because it’s a skill that is used in all types of professions, including business, ”Jacinto said.

Coding helps students understand how computers work and in doing so, develop language, math and logic skills, said Edwin Lagunes, senior at Rufus King High School who volunteered to help novice coders.

“A letter of leave and the program does not work,” warned Lagunes, who was accepted at Milwaukee School of Engineering, where he hopes to specialize in computer programming. It helps students find their mistakes and guides them to solve problems on their own.

Academy instructor and mechanical engineer Uwakwe Omegbu describes the process as learning a new language, which involves a lot of trial and error. Omegbu added that some students are more excited to learn a new language than if they think they are studying science.

“This excitement is what keeps me going. They get it! Omegbu said.

Inevitably, some projects will not go as planned. But, it’s all part of the plan, Juarez said. “I want them to feel good knowing they can fail. The scientific method is to learn from failure, ”he added.

There has been a learning curve for everyone involved, Arevalo said. The students’ emotions went from confused to excited. “From one week to the next, they became more and more engaged,” she added.

Arevalo and Juarez hope to offer the course again. For Arevalo, this is another way of keeping children safe and off the streets. Juarez added that he brings a new skill to the neighborhood. In turn, adolescents could play a role in shaping the future.

“Imagine… we could start a pipeline of engineers in this community,” Juarez said.


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