Throughout the planning phases of PyCon 2013, for everything we did, we did it bigger than last year. Attendance? We raised the cap to 2500 and sold it out. Talks? We added a sixth track, packing on 19 more presentations. Financial Aid? We doubled the budget to $100,000.
When it came to outreach, we went bigger than ever by reaching down to the little ones: children. For the first time, we offered two days of free tutorials for kids, titled “The Young Coder: Let’s Learn Python”
Taught by Barbara Shaurette and Katie Cunningham, the duo partnered up to introduce Python to two groups: Wednesday’s group were under 12, and Thursday’s were 13-16. As a conference center full of professional developers were busy sharpening their knowledge of web frameworks, signal processing, and computer vision, a room full of kids were peeking over their monitors to learn about algorithms constructed of peanut butter and jelly.
The lab was stocked with monitors, keyboards, and mice, but no familiar desktop towers were to be seen. Each child got to work with, and take home, a Raspberry Pi thanks to a deal brokered by conference chairman Jesse Noller. The lab was made possible thanks in part to SparkFun, who donated $4,000 worth of equipment, and conference attendees were given discount codes to both SparkFun and Adafruit. The little computers and their fun parts were perfect for getting the kids interested, and their simplicity let them explore with ease.
“I don't think you'd ever see that kind of experimentation in a classroom full of adults, who would more likely do everything in their power not to break their computers,” Barbara wrote of the kids’ ability to learn, write, and run code that quickly bogged the machine down. Shortly into the course, they learned to write their name in a string and then multiply it by huge numbers. If they went too far, a simple unplug and re-plug brought them back to square one.
“In fact, the slides were adapted from materials that I developed for an adult Intro to Python class,” said Barbara of the course materials, which are freely available on GitHub at https://github.com/mechanicalgirl/young-coders-tutorial. Katie added that a group of programmers from Mexico approached them with an offer to translate the slides so they could teach the class back home.
On the idea of adapting the adult slides for the kids version of the class, “my theory is that a beginner is a beginner, and that once children have reached an age where their brains are developed enough to comprehend abstract concepts, they're capable of learning what an adult would,” wrote Barbara.
Their plan was for the first half of the day to be about the educational slides, and the second half would be a dive into Katie’s game code. The plan worked out perfectly, with the older group getting through a bit more, leading to a discussion of open source and more learning materials.
When it came to organizing the whole event, it was going to take more than just Katie and Barbara, so they enlisted the help of several volunteers, like Jacob Burch. “The memories of all the ‘a-ha’ programming moments of my life are some of the brightest, and I relish the opportunity to bring those to others,” said Jacob of his opportunity to assist the class. “Teaching runs in the family [...] and I've always had a strong inkling towards mentorship,” he said.
“We ended up having around a 1:3 ratio, and it was perfect,” Katie wrote. “Volunteers were able to jump in if a student was floundering, and many developed a relationship with a few select kids over the course of eight hours. The volunteers were also an invaluable asset to me, letting me know with nods and hand signals if I could move on, or if I needed to chill out for a bit.”
“Some parents were Python developers, and some had no idea what programming was. They just knew this was a chance to enrich their children's lives,” Katie said of the parents in the audience. Meredith Prince came from a technology background but wasn’t a programmer until she recently picked it up.
As a newcomer to Python, Meredith decided that her friendly local user group (Baypiggies) treated her so well that she wanted to branch out and meet more of the community at PyCon, just 15 minutes from her home. It just so happened that the Young Coder tutorial would be a great match for her son, who she brought along for the day. “I figured it would teach him a valuable skill and help him see why I love Python so much,” she said of the move to swap a day of school for the tutorial.
“On a personal level, being able to prove to my son that programming is not as difficult as he thought it was also a treat,” said Meredith. “My favorite part was seeing all the kids enjoying what they were learning.”
Richard Jones, who held a tutorial on Thursday about the popular pygame library, couldn’t resist when he found out about the tutorial. “When I was introduced to one of the younger girls, her dad said she wanted to be a game developer,” Richard said of an 8 year old attendee. “She was so excited by the whole thing I asked if it'd be OK if some of the kids came to my pygame tutorial the following day.” Richard went on to teach Thursday’s tutorial to a packed room, with a handful of the children joining in.
“Several times during the day the kids would quietly exclaim things like ‘this is awesome.’ That pretty much made my day,” said Richard.
“We built in time at the end to allow the kids to play around with the new coding skills they'd learned, so they all still seemed pretty energetic and inspired when the day ended,” Barbara mentions. Katie “only had to use Mom Voice once”, and was happy to see the kids staying away from Facebook and focusing on learning.
Eleven year old Sam Berger, who came to PyCon from South Africa with his father in tow, was excited to bring his new Raspberry Pi back home to show his friends, and even the head of IT at school. “I learnt quite a bit and was amazed with how much you could do with the GPIO ports. I'm looking forward to playing and learning more with the Raspberry Pi,” he exclaimed.
At the end of the day, the kids went home with not only the Raspberry Pi, but two books to continue their Python learning. Jason Briggs’ “Python For Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming” and Warren Sande’s “Hello World! Computer Programming for Kids and Other Beginners” were given to everyone who came out to learn.
“I tried to impress on the kids that they were the stars of PyCon. I'm not quite sure they bought it, but it's true,“ said Katie. If you had a chance to peek in that lab like I did, it was the highlight of your week. The kids really stole the show.
"Seeing a room of 15-20 children each day glowing with excitement, triumphantly making hangman games and smiling makes me remember the wonder and love I felt learning to program, learning Python. It makes everything worth it," said conference chairman Jesse Noller.
As for what’s next, Barbara is doing a mini-session for a 5th grade class in Austin, Texas, and she’s heard interest from Austin-area girls’ STEM outreach programs that are interested in running workshops based on the Young Coder curriculum. She also submitted a proposal to bring the class to PyTexas this August, so be on the lookout for that. “What we started at PyCon has generated a lot of excitement among educators, and I think is going to grow into an exciting movement,” she says.
“I want this class to happen again,” states Katie. Whether it’s at PyCon in Montreal or the smaller regional conferences like PyCarolinas and PyOhio, or the many international events, it looks to be an important piece of the conference landscape moving forward. “I have ideas for adding to the class, and I'd love to see what other people might add to the material,” she says. “I will totally be doing this again and again.”