Coding Across Canada

The Code Mobile is bringing creative coding experiences to more than 10,000 kids this summer

PHOTO CREDIT: Evan Bergstra; The Code Mobile believes in the power of coding and changing the world through creativity, collaboration, and technology.

By My Nguyen

This summer, a brightly-colored turquoise van is making its way across Canada, hoping to attract kids of all kinds. But it’s not handing out ice cream — it’s offering creative coding experiences.

The Code Mobile is an initiative of Ladies Learning Code, a not-for-profit organization based in Toronto, Canada, with the mission of providing hands-on, social, and collaborative opportunities for women and young people to become passionate builders of technology.

What started in July 2011 simply as workshops for women who wanted to learn how to code has grown into much more. Created by the community, for the community, Ladies Learning Code now has more than 29 volunteer-led chapters across Canada.

“It started with computer programming workshops for women, but quickly grew into more. LLC [Ladies Learning Code] is not just for women. It is open to anyone. The name is meant simply to encourage women to come. It’s supposed to be an obvious way of saying, ‘You are welcome here. This is a safe space for beginners’,” Code Mobile Tour Manager Vanessa Doucet-Roche said.

The organization’s newest project, the Code Mobile, is more than just a computer lab on wheels. Rather, it is a cross-Canada journey to inspire and bring hands-on, interactive programming opportunities to young people through 1.5 to 6-hour experiences — including Scratch workshops.

Steered by Tour Manager Vanessa Doucet-Roche and Operations and Media manager Tess Kuramoto, the Code Mobile has a goal of teaching over 10,000 kids how to code by September of this year. Since their start in May, they have reached more than 6,000 kids, visited more than 32 cities, and driven tens of thousands of kilometers.

The Scratch Foundation recently spoke to Vanessa and Tess to learn more about their journey across Canada.

PHOTO CREDIT: Evan Bergstra; From May to September 2016, the Code Mobile will visit over 50 cities across Canada, plus surrounding cities and towns based on community requests.

Where did the idea for Code Mobile come from?

Vanessa Doucet-Roche: Melissa Sariffodeen, who is a co-founder and CEO of Ladies Learning Code had this idea a few years ago. She thought, “How can we excite people across the country about programming?” She and others at LLC decided it was going to happen, started the crowd funding, got the van… it was about a year or two before we hit the ground.

Tess Kuramoto: Also, the Code Mobile is sponsored by funding from Microsoft’s Youth Spark Program. They have been super supportive. They donated all of the laptops that we have on the van.

How were the locations determined for your journey?

VD: While schools were still in session, we received many requests from teachers and school officials across the country. For the month of June, we were on the east coast just focusing on those schools because they’re a huge part of the initiative. In locations where there weren’t a lot of requests, we emailed principals and schools boards saying, “This is what we’re doing. It doesn’t cost anything. We’d love to visit your community. Does it interest you?” There were plenty of communities that we just cold-called or cold-emailed. Overwhelmingly, we heard “yes.”

We also wanted to make sure that we hit cities that have their own LLC chapters so that we could continue to build awareness.

TK: We have had lots of requests come in while we’ve been on the road, as well. Once the word got out, more and more people started looking us up.

VD: Basically, we have no days off this summer because more requests just keep coming up, like, “Oh, there’s this tiny school like two hours outside of Edmonton that really wants us to come by.” So, we just go. We don’t take Saturday off. We adjust our route to make it work to be there. It’s great.

TK: We’re getting to visit so many different communities. We were in a place recently in Nova Scotia with a very tiny community. They didn’t have a cell tower. There were six kids in the school.

PHOTO CREDIT: Evan Bergstra; The Code Mobile has visited large cities and small towns, privileged and underprivileged communities alike.

What are some of your favorite stories from the road, so far?

TK: So, the Code Mobile website shows a map of where the van is, where it’s going, and what the next stop is — and a girl named Kylie and her dad tracked us down at one of our schools. They were following us on Instagram, Facebook, online. There weren’t any plans for us to stop at or around her school, so her dad brought her to us, just so that they could talk to us. That gave us warm fuzzies.

PHOTO CREDIT: Code Mobile; Code Mobile fan Kylie and her father drove followed the Code Mobile on social media, then tracked them down at a local site.

Another great one is when we were in a school, and one of the teachers came in and said, “I was expecting to walk in and find three males.” All of our workshops are led by female instructors. We don’t say, “only women can do this,” but it’s just the way the Code Mobile is. We don’t really talk about it — that’s not our focus. We’re just women, we’re just people.

VD: Once, a teacher came in before her class arrived and let us know that she had a student with behavioral issues due to ADD. She gave us some notes on how to handle certain situations, which was very kind of her. After we started the workshop, I kept looking around — I could not find this kid that she’d told us about. Was he here? Did he run off? Finally, I went to the teacher and asked. It turns out that he had been sitting at the desk using Scratch, just loving it. So enthralled. It was an instance where you have a student or students who may not necessarily learn in the same way that other students in the class do — but with programming in Scratch, they’re able not only to participate, but also excel at it.

TK: We’ve had some wonderful experiences with autistic students. Speaking about a student, a teacher told us, “I haven’t seen him smile like this in so long.”

PHOTO CREDIT: Code Mobile; The “code squad” believes that computer programming and other technical skills are a tool of empowerment.

Why did you decide to use Scratch for your workshops?

TK: Well, Ladies Learning Code and our youth program, Kids Learning Code, have used Scratch for quite some time. One part of our mission is to increase accessibility, and because Scratch is free and open-source, it is open to everyone. The drag-and-drop, visual aesthetic of Scratch is so fun. It’s not intimidating. Kids look at it and think, “Oh, I can get on board with this. It’s like a fun puzzle.”

There’s the online community, too. When we tell kids that they can go home and share their projects with their friends, they really get into it. When we leave a place that doesn’t have many physical coding resources, we encourage them to turn to the online community.

PHOTO CREDIT: Stefano Barbera; With the help of developers, designers and professional educators, the Code Mobile has created content that not only showcases beginner-friendly concepts, but also ideas kids are excited about.

VD: It’s amazing. Some kids have already worked with Scratch, so we say to them, “Okay, then you’re going to be our mentors. You’re going to help other students.” One girl asked her teacher if she could come help us for the rest of the day. Her teacher said yes, as long as she got the rest of her work done. She stayed to be a mentor for the other classes.

TK: Scratch is so diverse. You can make it as challenging or as simple as you want. We try to personalize the workshops for each group or community. If a group is following along, then we keep going. We add more and more to it.

VD: For example, we’ve been doing a local folk story project at our workshops. So, the characteristics and culture of each community changes the way we lead the lessons. We try to be as specific and personal as possible. We don’t want to say, “Here’s a generic curriculum.”

What do you hope kids get out of their experiences with the Code Mobile?

TK: I see a huge lack of women and diversity in technology field. I want to help change that. To say, “This can be for you. Don’t be scared.” It’s also that technology doesn’t have to be just one thing. It can be anything — so much of our world is made up of technology. To question it, to invent it, to create it to yourself, to not be as scared of it…it can be inspiring.

VD: For me, it’s about showing kids how to create in the world that’s happening around them: “This is where we’re going — technology touches so many aspects of your life. How can you fit into that?” Just to have that core understanding — to show them that it can be more approachable. They can become creators and innovators within the world around them. It doesn’t have to be this unknown.

PHOTO CREDIT: Stefano Barbera; The Code Mobile is made possible largely by Ladies Learning Code’s network of local chapters and volunteers.

What has surprised you about this experience?

VD: The response. Within a day of starting with the Code Mobile, I realized, “Oh my gosh. Everyone wants us to come. This is amazing.” I was talking on the phone with this woman, and she said, “We’re a small school a few hours outside of Calgary in Alberta. Normally, we would have had to hire a bus to get ourselves to these sorts of things.” Hearing that sort of need and knowing that they wanted us to come — that has been really special.

TK: For me, it’s just the overall support — how much support and how overwhelmingly thankful all the people that we’ve come in contact with have been. The parents, the teachers, the communities…

It’s also interesting to see the way kids’ minds work. They can create anything. What kind of worlds do they want to create? What do they want to explore? To see kids get to that level of creativity is very inspiring.

PHOTO CREDIT: Code Mobile; Brit Hemming (left), Tess Kuramoto (middle), and Vanessa Doucet-Roche (right) welcome some new young members of the “code squad.”

What have you learned about yourself or others through this experience?

VD: Growing up, my family was not huge on technology. Even now, I often work with my computer, but as soon as my time is done, I shut my laptop off and try to get away from it. But through this experience, I’m learning to see technology as a tool of innovation and creation versus just something to consume for personal reasons. It has really opened my eyes.

TK: Just the super creativity of kids. It’s very humbling to go into these communities and see just how inspiring the kids are. I think we have such an obligation to lead the generation coming after us. We live in digital age, and I think technology can really help with a lot of problems in the world.

Are there plans for the Code Mobile after this summer?

TK: Well, this really has been the most amazing cross-country case study we could possible do. We are really finding out what the needs are. It’s just really interesting to talk to so many teachers.

PHOTO CREDIT: Evan Bergstra; The Code Mobile’s goal is to teach 10,000 kids across Canada how to code by September.

It’s definitely going to continue. We’ve had such success so far, and there’s obviously demand from the country. It’s amazing. Aside from just teaching kids how to code, we are also trying to be part of that conversation about building coding curriculum into schools. I think the van may wear different hats as we go forward, but it’s definitely going to continue.