Class Act: Coding for Kids

Caltech senior Anna Resnick shares basic coding skills with Natalia Jimenez at Pasadena’s Jefferson Elementary School.

Caltech senior Anna Resnick shares basic coding skills with Natalia Jimenez at Pasadena’s Jefferson Elementary School.

On Friday afternoons, Caltech computer science students visit public schools in Pasadena to help third-, fourth-, and fifth-graders learn to code. Their work is part of a recently introduced course in which Caltech undergrads study and practice strategies for teaching programming to children. 

“We start with basic concepts, and by the end, students have coded their own games in Scratch [a visual programming language developed for children],” says senior Anna Resnick, who helps lead the class as a teaching assistant. “A few have even told us they want to be programmers someday.” 

Stepping up 

The coding initiative started about five years ago when a Pasadena Unified School District teacher requested Caltech’s help with computer science instruction, says Mitch Aiken, the Institute’s associate director for educational outreach. Around the same time, a group of first-year students at Caltech expressed interest in teaching coding. 

A pilot program, in which student volunteers visited schools to deliver programming lessons, proved promising, Aiken recalls. But organizers determined that more students would be able to consistently commit time to the project if it were part of a formal class rather than a volunteer effort. 

“It reminds our students why they were first inspired by computer science,” says Claire Ralph, lecturer and outreach director for Caltech’s computing and mathematical sciences department. “And it’s an opportunity to give back, another way to have an impact on the field.” 

Easy access 

For participants, undergrads, and elementary schoolers alike, the experience can also make computer science seem a little more accessible, Ralph says. 

“For our students, it’s a good reminder of how far they’ve come,” she says. “It can be easy to underestimate how much you’ve learned and how much you know. You have to really understand something well to be able to explain it to a fifth-grader.” 

“I’ve always loved teaching, helping people understand things,” senior Steven Brotz says. “The kids are all familiar with computer games. We have the chance to help them understand how those games get created.” 

Looking ahead 

Alix Espino, a Caltech senior, hopes the time she spends with younger students encourages them to consider careers in computer science. 

“I felt like it was important for me to get involved because there are not a lot of Latinos in tech, and this school [Jefferson Elementary] is predominantly Latino,” Espino said. “I thought I could be a good role model.”