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Code Camp Columbia teaches young programmers the craft of coding

Thursday, August 7, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 10:22 a.m. CDT, Thursday, August 7, 2014
The first Code Camp Columbia, a new day camp for children ages 12 to 15, is underway this week at Columbia College. Its purpose is to introduce students to the primary programming languages and to build basic coding skills.

*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misstated Jessica Canfield's first name.

COLUMBIA — "What's HTML stand for?" Cameron Reeves, 12, asked Jessica* Canfield, a counselor for Code Camp Columbia, as he worked on the Wednesday morning assignment.

"HyperText Markup Language," Canfield said, laughing. "But you will never have to actually know that in your life."

The first Code Camp Columbia, a new day camp for children ages 12 to 15, is underway this week through Friday at Columbia College. Its purpose is to introduce youth to the primary programming languages and to build basic coding skills. Camp organizers hope to expand the local coding community, as well as generate new coding clubs and classes in schools.

Russell Perkins, a camp counselor and a Web developer for The Evoke Group, one of the camp's sponsors, said creating the coding curriculum was difficult because there weren't a lot of resources available online.

"We kind of had to go, 'OK, we've got to do this all from scratch,'" Perkins said.

The curriculum focuses on introducing the campers to basic programming languages such as HTML, CSS and JavaScript, which Perkins said provides a solid foundation for more learning.

The campers are doing assignments that walk them through the basic functions of code. The final project is for each camper to create a Web-based game that Perkins likened to a simpler version of the strategy board game Othello.

The dozen campers come from Boonville, Columbia and Fayette. Sophie Kovalenko, 12, is interested in the creative aspects of Web design. On her first day of camp, Sophie was already making a customized Web page centered around fashion.

Sophie is the only girl. Canfield said she wanted more girls to join the camp, but there was so much focus on the curriculum that there hadn't been much marketing done leading up to it. Canfield said she hopes the next iteration of Code Camp Columbia will have larger, more diverse classes.

In addition to the The Evoke Group, other sponsors are Nate's Computer Repair, Pickleman's Gourmet Cafe and Columbia College. The counselors come from one of these businesses.

Perkins said the camp's unique curriculum resulted from two months of work by the counselors, who had to balance their professional jobs alongside their prep work for the camp. It was stressful, Perkins said, with a lot of 16-hour work days over weekends.

"It's been a labor of love for the last couple of months," Canfield said.

Perkins said the curriculum was the hard part, "so next time we can focus on getting more volunteers and teachers, more students. ... Now it's just refine it, refine it."

Once the camp finishes, Perkins said that he and other organizers plan to go to Columbia schools to show them what the camp has accomplished and to get feedback on what they've done.

Code Camp Columbia reflects growing interest across the country to learn code at a younger age. Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, told The New York Times in May that although it is in the early stages, the spread of coding instruction is "unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education."

Canfield said one source of inspiration was Code.org and its Hour of Code campaign, in which students with no coding experience learn the basics by completing interactive tutorials. She said that although Code Camp Columbia is not an official partner of Code.org, its work was a sign that there is a great demand for coding education among school-age children.

On Wednesday, as the campers plugged away at their computers, trying to create the perfect design for their Web game's layout, counselor Austin Kolb joked about how lost in their work the kids become.

"They kind of get tunnel vision when they get into it," he said, grinning as he looked over the shoulder of Dalton Pannell, 13, who was trying to find the just-right color for his game's board.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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