When Palama Settlement announced the start of virtual coding classes for youth in June of this year, Blaze did not want to join. He had no prior experience with coding and his parents had to bargain with him to enroll in the class. Fast forward four months and Blaze is now one of the most active and enthusiastic participants, coming to each session prepared with questions and ideas to share with his peers. “At first he didn’t want to join because he didn’t know what it was,” said his mother. “I had to bargain with him to try it out and now he’s so grateful that I signed him up. He loves it!”
These virtual coding classes are an ongoing activity through Palama Settlement, taught by Anna Gustafson and assisted by Kasey Kawaguchi. The classes consist of prerecorded video lessons, which Anna films and Kasey then edits and uploads to Google Classroom so students can learn at their own pace. The youth then comes together twice a week for virtual “office hours” with Anna and Kasey, which began as a check in and chance for them to ask questions but quickly became a more collaborative, social space for students to help each other debug their projects and play together.
There are 18 youth registered in coding class at Palama, ranging from age 7 to 13 years. The self-paced curriculum allows Anna to juggle various learning levels, from beginner to advanced. For each level there is different curriculum, all developed by Anna. The beginner students work within Scratch, a block-based visual programming language, to make puzzle platform style games similar to Super Mario. The advanced students work in Unity, a real-time, 3D game creation software used by real world games like NASCAR Heat 5, Call of Duty: Mobile, and Wasteland 3.
Some students like to create marble-run games based around the mechanics of physics, while others prefer more combat-style scrolling games that make use of running and shooting actions. Anna challenges students to think creatively about how to use these actions within their games without making them violent. For instance, one student created a garden that is invaded by rabbits, but instead of chasing and shooting them, the player must feed them until they get very fat and then coax them out of the garden.
Palama’s coding class is unique in that the students guide their own learning experience. They watch the tutorials and develop their own games. Since the program is ongoing, they are able to tell Anna what they enjoy doing, what they’d like to learn next, and how they want to learn it so she can develop new curriculum tailored to their needs and interests. “Projects are not graded so there’s no pressure if students aren’t keeping up with the rest of the class,” explains Anna. “Participation is always voluntary, so it is up to the kids to decide whether they want to play in the space or not.” This level of autonomy has worked well for the class, with over half the students voluntarily attending check-in every single week and staying for the full hour, even asking that the time be extended by another hour.
The classes provide the students with much more than just coding lessons. The weekly check-ins are a chance for social interaction while school is remote and spending time together in person is impossible. One student, Kyle, told Anna he has not left his house – even for a walk – since March, but he doesn’t mind. He is the oldest and most advanced in the coding class but still attends each check-in and stays for the full session. As a teenager, Kyle is usually a little more reserved than the younger students but comes out of his shell when he is working with them to debug their games.
Coding has provided a fun and supportive space for all students, particularly during the transition of schools to distance learning. The students found the start of school in August to be overwhelming, with new demands and challenges and simply a lot of time in front of the computer. But the class is an activity they can choose for themselves, which offers an outlet for creativity, for fun, and for socialization.
If you would like to help support Palama’s coding program, your donation of $30 covers the cost of one two-hour class plus the week’s curriculum for one student. You can make your gift by visiting www.palamasettlement.org/donate or mailing a check to 810 N. Vineyard Boulevard, Honolulu, HI 96817. Please make a note with your online donation or on your check that your gift is for “Coding Classes”. Mahalo!