Following a Code: Peer Computer Science Learning in Faith Based Communities
By Mya Stark, Director of LA Makerspace, Gretchen J. Morris, Program Director of the Joshua Initiative Young Scholars Program, and Beverly Munir, Program Specialist at the Joshua Initiative Young Scholars Program
Thou therefore which teachest another, teachest thou not thyself? — Romans 2:21
Mya Stark, Director of LA Makerspace:
LA Makerspace (LAM), founded in 2012 by technologist Tara Tiger Brown and a dedicated group of Maker parents, is best known for our work with the Los Angeles City and County public library systems. We help librarians become Makers with the ability to facilitate kids’ STEAM learning, even in topics they themselves are not experts in. In the four years since we began our initial partnership with LAPL’s visionary Full STEAM Ahead program, we have been privileged to take part in creating over 15,000 opportunities for Maker learning in library branches, via co-taught LAM Facilitator/Librarian workshops. Robotics, e-textiles, coding with Scratch, coding with Minecraft, and stop motion animation: we’ve seen librarians go from 0 to 60 with them all, to the point where they are now training their own peers independently of us. We couldn’t be prouder!
In addition to our library work, LA Makerspace has been tinkering for some years with a peer-teaching computer science program utilizing Scratch, Coding Crew, initially created by Dr. Brian Foley of Cal State Northridge.
The structure of the program is that it is kicked off in a bootcamp format, by a kid or team of kids who already knows how to code in Scratch, held at an afterschool program, summer school, or library branch. The peer/peers teach not only the programming language, but also pedagogical skills, with the aim being that the new Coding Crew grads will be equipped to continue teaching within their own communities. We’ve noticed that the kids get really amped about the idea that they are learning to code for a greater purpose, so they can inhabit the role of an empowered teacher, not solely a passive student. This motivation increases their interest, participation, and passion.
Initial work on the program was funded by generous support from Google’s RISE Awards, and this support included getting to attend a wonderful international summit of fellow awardees in 2015. Some exciting new research was presented at the summit demonstrating that parental encouragement is the most important factor in a kid’s interest in CS Learning. From the moment we heard that, a slight obsession was sparked to keep bringing coding closer and closer to the family, closer than school or even libraries. Closer to the heart.
One of the reasons we love working in libraries so much is because every neighborhood, regardless of socio-economic conditions, has a library branch working tirelessly to democratize knowledge. But, as LAM’s mission is to ensure equal access to STEAM learning opportunity for every kid in L.A., we couldn’t possibly stop there in our quest to take over the world with educational Maker fun (bwahaha)! We are always looking for new ways to leverage existing infrastructure that reaches kids in need for STEAM.
Well, there is another kind of place that exists in every neighborhood, where families participate with their children, and that is very close to the heart: Churches. Sure, it seems like an odd juxtaposition at first, as churches are not typically known to be high-tech places, but would it really be so strange to do coding in a church environment?
Our gut feeling was that it wasn’t strange at all.
Churches are rich in people who are committed to caring for the children in their lives. No one should be surprised to hear that this includes the desire to enhance their education and future possibilities with the STEAM and computer science learning they may not be getting in school.
However, whether or not there is a person in an particular congregation who has a technical background and can implement computer science education, is hit-or-miss.
We wondered: Could LA Makerspace design a program that could be used by any community, with as limited involvement from outside organizations such as ourselves as possible? The more the continuation of the program could be put into the hands of churches and their networks, without relying on having to find funding to pay outside vendors — if such vendors were even available, as might not always be the case in rural communities, for example — the easier it would be to sustain, and to scale itself.
Further tinkering to adapt Coding Crew to the needs of churches, seemed like it might be a neat thing to try in this regard. But it remained just an idea we were kicking around for a couple of years. Until one day, we got a call.
Gretchen J. Morris, Young Scholars Program Director, First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood:
It all started with a simple call, to ask a simple question, “How can I start coding classes at my church?” The person on the other end of the telephone’s answer was, “I am looking for churches.” Bingo, a perfect match.
Some background: African-American Churches have historically have been instrumental in providing educational opportunities for African Americans. First Presbyterian demonstrates this mission via its Joshua Initiative: a broad-based program in support of the youth, which bridges the youth and the elders to close the Educational Gap in diverse populations. As part of the Initiative, we hold a Saturday School called the Young Scholars Program, for which I am the Program Director.
Coding caught my attention because the objective of our Young Scholars Program is to enhance our students well-being, while advancing their critical thinking, and problem-solving skills. Coding allows our Young Scholars to rise above and create a better future for themselves and their families. After all, coding is the future.
We already had two prior sessions of the Saturday School, Literacy and Entrepreneurship. So it was easy for us to shift our program to technology. We were able to make a smooth transition because we already had the space, the volunteers, and the children.
Learning to code will promote economic mobility and improve the lives of diverse and underserved students who otherwise might not have the resources to learn computer skills.
What we really needed were the computers, the internet, and an instructor. We were able to move swiftly because of the enthusiasm of Mya Stark the Director of L.A. Makerspace who was able to provide the devices with the Scratch coding offline editor downloaded on them, so internet would not be required.
Our first series started in June of 2018. What we discovered is that the older students with the greatest interest and desire to teach were moved into our internship program. Not only will they teach the next series, we plan to help them develop as coding entrepreneurs. These students are being prepared to go into the community and teach other children in other churches and institutions, and charge a fee. Finding something that a teen loves to do is a blessing. Getting paid for a job you love is a bonus that empowers and boost a teen’s self confidence. When we mentioned to our interns that they would receive a stipend the expression on their faces was priceless.
Our interns were inspired by our fourteen-year-old instructor, Korbin Deary, a graduate of the original Coding Crew program, who created his own coding instruction and web design business.
I am a retired teacher. It is with gratitude that I was led to become a part of something so important, and so inspiring. To know that we are equipping children with the necessary tools to live a better life makes my day. Everyone will code in the future, regardless of their profession. Early exposure to computer programming is the key to successful, independent futures.
Beverly Munir, Young Scholars Program Specialist, First Presbyterian Church of Inglewood:
Coding, the way to the future! Amazingly, coding bridged the generational gap between our young scholars and the attendees of their special event where they shared what they created through coding and brought enthusiasm and a sense of pride in their finished product. Their grandparents, mothers, friends, stakeholders, and community shared a terrific day of coding that highlighted their skills. The featured stars (the graduating coding class) demonstrated with confidence what they had learned from their coding instructor and the great lesson they had learned on determination to get the job done! They literally produced something from Scratch, coding from nothing! Some of our young students had never been introduced to this technology while others refined their skills. With that said, we found coding a necessary tool to bring a sense of balance and inclusion to all students.
Thank you stakeholders for bringing this to Inglewood by way of church! This is and continues to be an interest to all of our young scholars!
Mya Stark is the Director of LA Makerspace, part of the Two Bit Circus Foundation Family of Awesomeness. She started out as a filmmaker and then edited an arts and culture magazine. Next, she transferred to the nonprofit realm and also founded an art gallery that focused on relational art. Now she applies those experiences to making LA Makerspace a tool people can use to help each other learn anything (even if they are not experts, “techies,” or educators — but also if they are).
Gretchen J. Morris is a retired LAUSD preschool, elementary, and adult ESL teacher. She received her M.A. in Behavioral Science from California State University Dominguez Hills, and her M.A. in Education from California State University Los Angeles. Ms. Morris is also the President of Black Legacy, a company that focuses on educating others about African American Culture. She is the program director of Presbyterian of Inglewood’s Saturday School, the Joshua Initiative Young Scholars Program, which incorporates learning about topics such as literacy, writing, speaking, art, math, and science. It also covers other areas of interest such as coding, civics, geography, empathy, tolerance, and self-esteem, through a lens of history and family heritage.
Beverly Munir has worked for the city of Los Angeles as a social worker for over 30 years. She earned her Master’s of Education and Master’s of Social Work from California State University Northridge and is currently pursuing a doctoral degree in social work (DSW). Beverly works with the Joshua Initiative Young Scholars Program as a program specialist, ensuring our scholars have healthy self-esteem and provide extended learning opportunities that enhance positivity in their lives.