Long Overdue

Episode 12: Libraries and Prenda Code Club: Building Curiosity and Community

Nov 04, 2020

Technology specialist Jesse Simms and Luke Miller of Prenda Code Club share how Buckeye Public Library in Arizona is empowering patrons of all ages to learn computer programming skills.

Learn More about Prenda Code Club.

Tammy Ross:

Welcome to Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology, a podcast in which we explore important trends and topics in the library industry. This is Tammy Ross, Senior Marketing Manager for EBSCO's school and public library database products. In this episode, we take a look at how public libraries are supporting coding education. Joining me are Jesse Simms, Technology Specialist at Buckeye Public Library in Arizona and Luke Miller, head of Prenda Code Club. Jesse and Luke, welcome to the program!

Jesse Simms:

Yes, thank you for having me. I appreciate it.

Luke Miller:

So glad to be here. Thanks, Tammy.

Tammy Ross:

You're welcome. Thank you. So Luke, I want to start by asking you to explain a little bit about what coding is for any librarians who might be new to the topic.

Luke Miller:

Yeah, absolutely. When I first started talking about coding, I would get this question, "Coding, is that like medical billing or something like that?" No, that's not what we're talking about here. When we talk about coding, we're talking about making a computer do what you want it to do.

A lot of people are familiar with coding languages like C+ or JavaScript or Python, or maybe you've at least heard those words, and that's a good start. At Prenda, what we like to think about is just the end goal of coding is making a computer do what you want it to do. That happens in websites, in video games, in app development, and then more recently in things like robotics and AI and machine learning and that kind of thing. All of that kind of falls under this big coding umbrella. You may have heard of words like computer programming, computer science, all of that's the same general category that we're talking about here today.

Tammy Ross:

Got it. Awesome. So when you look at today's economy, computer programming skills are in very high demand. I did some quick research before our conversation and code.org says there are nearly 400,000 computer programmer jobs in the US, and that's in the midst of a pandemic. So these jobs obviously require programming knowledge, but I would think that also, by learning how to code, you develop skills such as creativity and innovation and problem solving. Would that be accurate?

Luke Miller:

Absolutely. There's actual academic research that's been tied to this idea that as you learn how to code, you're developing other more generic life skills, like problem solving and creativity and that kind of thing. If you just Google 'computational thinking,' that's kind of the buzzword and you'll find a lot of those academic articles. But yeah, learning how to code is like the ultimate way to learn problem solving. It's the ultimate way, because when you learn how to code, you run into a lot of problems and you're forced time and time again, to overcome those problems and develop that life skill.

Really, it doesn't matter what your ultimate career aspiration is. It doesn't matter what job field you're going to go into in the future. Learning how to code is going to prepare you to succeed for any job. It's going to give you the foundation. It's going to give you the skills needed to succeed and flourish in any future career. That's not just because of the life skills, although that is a big reason why, it's also because in the future you're going to have to know how to code at least a little bit for every job. It doesn't matter if your job title is youth librarian, race car driver, marketer, or whatever, you're going to have to know how to interact with a computer at more than just a basic level for any job in the future. That's one of the big reasons why we're excited to be working with kids to prepare them to flourish in the future.

Tammy Ross:

Tell me what led you to connect with public libraries.

Luke Miller:

We started as volunteers in our local library back in 2013 and Kelly, our founder, he had a kid in junior high at the time and he thought, "I should teach my kid how to code." It had been really impactful on Kelly and on his career to know how to code, even though he wasn't a computer programmer. So he thought, "I should teach my kid how to code and I might as well invite the neighborhood kids to come as well."

So we went to the Mesa Public Library in downtown Mesa, Phoenix area. We said, "Hey, can we do this code club thing?" That's where we got the question, "You mean like medical billing? Coding, what's that?" We're like, "No, no, don't worry. It's like kids doing computer programming, that stuff." So they said, "Sure, how about you use this room in the back corner of the library, upstairs and out of the way where if you guys are loud, it won't bother everybody else."

We started teaching kids how to code in an informal after school setting. Kids would come and hang out with their friends and spend an hour or two working on stuff, working on projects that we'd give them. It was amazing what we saw. We saw all of a sudden 30, 40, 50 kids coming. I think we topped out at 60-plus kids coming every week to learn how to code at this after school code club.

We were just passionate at that time. Maybe we just by happenstance walked into the library initially, into the public library, but what we discovered was we had a kindred spirit in the public library. We cared about reaching these kids that wouldn't have access to this otherwise. If you look at the research and if you look at the numbers, most of the kids who have access to computer programming today are those who either live in an affluent area where the schools can afford to hire a computer programming instructor or it's kids whose parents are computer programmers and so they learn it because their parents do it already.

But we were passionate about reaching kids who were outside of that demographic and public libraries were just a natural fit for us at the time. As we got to know public libraries better and better through the years, we just felt like it was a natural strategic alignment. We wanted to level the playing field and that's something that is deeply embedded in the library philosophy of why libraries exist. This idea of reaching people who wouldn't have access otherwise. We decided when it came time to build this business, we were going to build it completely in partnership with public and school libraries because of that alignment. Here we are today, partnering with public libraries all around the country to provide computer programming education to kids who more than likely wouldn't have this opportunity otherwise.

Tammy Ross:

Jesse, Buckeye Public Library was one of those sites that took advantage of the opportunity to offer Prenda Code Club. What prompted your decision?

Jesse Simms:

Yeah, so a quick background on Buckeye. We're a suburb on the most western edge of the Phoenix Metro area. When we first launched Code Club back in 2015, it was through a grant that the Arizona State Library was generous enough to provide. Really for us, we all know that libraries, one of their core services is early literacy. We take that very seriously. We have amazing story times, but we wanted to find other ways to impact kids and those foundational skills. Sort of like Luke talked about, these are skills that you're going to develop that are a foundational, sort of underpin and act as ways that kids can build other skills on top of. Much like literacy and reading allows you to learn most of the things, we wanted to focus on coding as another leg to that foundation, if you will.

We've seen a huge explosive growth in the last five to 10 years from about 60,000 to up over 90,000 now. A lot of those rooftops, like in most suburban areas, it's families, it's a bedroom community. So we know that there's this large demand for those types of services. So we really wanted to look to provide something like that with Prenda. We were lucky enough to get in on the ground floor and see the progress as it moved throughout.

Another interesting feature with Buckeye is we're really, really large geographically, over 600 square miles in our municipal planning area. It's a really large municipal area with a lot of room for growth. So we also wanted to kind of seed and like I said, get in on the ground floor with different things that we can grow with and we can help determine the direction of, to help companies, give them that feedback so that we can provide that value and say, "Hey, this is what we need. This is what we're looking for for our communities." So that was sort of the thought process behind moving into Prenda when we first launched.

Tammy Ross:

That's awesome. So can you tell me about some of the ways Buckeye has been able to incorporate Prenda, and maybe if you have a success story or two?

Jesse Simms:

The biggest advantage for us in terms of incorporating Prenda is we're able to provide high quality programming without staff-intensive planning. One of the things with our story times is we have one full-time staff member and one part-time staff member. They work the desk, but they spend the majority of their time dedicated to just doing story time.

Like I said, it's a core service we provide, so that's okay, but we wanted to bring something else on without having to go out and hire 1.5 FTEs, which would be much harder to sell to a council. We really wanted to be able to provide that high-quality programming without the staff-intensive planning. Of course, now we're in this pandemic space where we can't go into the library and all of our programming, or we can go to the library, the public can't currently, and all our programming is sort of switched to virtual.

It's kind of interesting to see that though Prenda, we were doing this programming in person, we would have the code clubs in-person before the pandemic and we would have staff there, but the way it's designed was for it to be pretty self-guided. So we've been able to luckily convert a lot of folks to using Prenda remotely now because of the pandemic.

I guess some cool success stories: we've had some really fun things with our summer coding contest, where we would give kids about eight weeks, say, and we'd have prizes at the end. We'd bring in the mayor and some other local business owners in the community to judge the contest. Some of these kids did these amazingly ornate, 20 level video games and some did really creative and fun animated storytelling using ScratchJr and an iPad. So it kind of ran the gamut and it was exciting to see kids use coding to express themselves in different ways. It's not just creating a website or coding your door to trigger an alarm when your brother opens it or something like that.

Tammy Ross:

Kids, they never cease to amaze me, the things they come up with. It's so nice to hear that they're using Prenda to really, like you said, express themselves creatively. Luke, what makes Prenda Code Club different than like say, taking a coding class?

Luke Miller:

Yeah. Good question. We've seen this time and time again. I've actually gotten to be a part of a couple of those summer programs with Buckeye, and I've seen it over there and I've seen it in code clubs around the country. When you learn how to code in a context like Prenda, you have access to your peers and you have access to an adult who can cheerlead and mentor you. The adult may not know how to code, and that's fine, but when you do it with Prenda, there's this built-in community, we call it Code Club for a reason, right? There's this built-in community that you have access to. It just makes it way more fun to learn. You get inspired by your peers. You get to have fun with your peers and you come back week after week after week.

Not to mention that, like for those that are using our program at home and they're not a part of an in-person Code Club, there's still some of that, that happens in our software. We have this whole gamified platform that's going to keep kids interested and it's going to make it fun. What really we're doing at Prenda is we're trying to tap into the already existing, inbuilt curiosity that exists within kids. We're trying to tap into this belief that kids want to learn. Kids have this inbuilt desire that they want to learn already. We're just giving them the resources and the tools so that they can go and learn this thing that's pretty inherently fun.

You don't have to do a lot of selling to get a kid interested in coding. All you have to do is say, "Hey, do you want to learn how to make a video game? Hey, do you want to learn how to make a website?" Most kids at that point would be like, "Yeah, that sounds amazing." So all we do is we unlock that and we give them the freedom and the room to explore those interests in both our self-guided version and when libraries pick it up and run it as after school programs.

Tammy Ross:

What's gamified about it, exactly?

Luke Miller:

Yeah. In the platform, kids are awarded avatars and as they go through their coding journey, they unlock more and more items that they can use to customize their avatar. That's one way that it's gamified. It's pretty rewarding for a kid to complete a, let's say a website and all of a sudden they get as part of their reward, a sidekick robot, for example, and the robot's added to their avatar screen and they get to show off to all their friends, "Check it out. I got this sidekick robot, isn't this cool?"

So that's one of the ways that the program's gamified and there's some other stuff too, but gamification is just there to encourage that curiosity to continue when kids get stuck or when they get frustrated, as we all do when we're learning new things, right? The gamification kicks in and the kids say things like, "Ooh, I've go to stick with it so I can unlock that next thing. I've got to stick with it so I get those points," or whatever it is. That's kind of how we approach that idea.

Tammy Ross:

I definitely think that works. I've fallen for games on my phone where there's incentives and you earn coins and things like that, I've had to actually remove them because they take time.

Luke Miller:

Oh yeah. I've seen your Candy Crush profiles. I know what you're talking about.

Tammy Ross:

Right. Yeah, so it's definitely an incentive for them. Jesse, does the library have to provide any hardware to support?

Jesse Simms:

Yeah, we have laptops and most of our laptops are purchased through our IT department. We were fortunate enough to receive 10 laptops as part of a grant as well. We also have iPads, which the younger kids really love. I mentioned ScratchJr before that they're able to work with also on those iPads.

Now with the iPads, we were also able to get some of those through a grant also. There are some funding opportunities for the hardware component as well. There's a lot of small businesses out there that would love to support coding and that sort of thing in their community. There's a lot of ways to try to bring in different hardware. In addition to the digital devices, we also have purchased Makey Makeys and Cubelets and Cosmo and different things in the physical space where kids can use those skills they learn in Prenda and Code Club, they can use those skills to make something in the physical world do something.

There is a sort of different magic to that for kids and even for adults when I can code something to physically do something in my world versus on my computer screen. So we'll bring those out during Code Club and also during outreach events as well. We've used those, and it really acts as a very powerful hook for kids to want to get in there and try different ways to manipulate the physical world around them using coding.

Tammy Ross:

That sounds like a lot of fun. I wish we had that when I was a kid.

Jesse Simms:

I know, right?

Luke Miller:

It's a cool thing to have those hardware devices, like Jesse's talking about, the Makey Makeys and the codeable robots. That's something that Prenda has incorporated into our curriculum. We provide support curriculum for a lot of those maker robotics devices. When the kids show up to the Buckeye Code Club, it's still like a one-stop shop. They could work on building a game in Scratch, or they could work on coding this thing up with a Makey Makey. It's just this great, like Jesse's describing, this great dynamic environment where they have a lot of different ways that they can express their coding desire. It's so fulfilling to see a little robot walk across the table because you told it to.

Tammy Ross:

Is it mostly kids that would use Prenda Code Club or do you see an age range of adults, Jesse?

Jesse Simms:

For us in Buckeye, our bell curve solidly is 10 to 13 year olds, our peak of our bell curve there, but we also see pretty good numbers for seven to nine year olds and 14 to 17 year olds. That's of course our target audience that we're marketing to and building the Code Club around. But we've also interestingly seen a cluster of folks in their thirties and forties that have registered for Code Club. We have one 76 year old, which is cool. Then I did see one that said they were 122 years old, but I think that might be a teen playing a joke on us.

Tammy Ross:

Right. Well, they say you're never too old to learn, right?

Jesse Simms:

Yeah, there you go, there you go.

Tammy Ross:

So tell me Jesse, about your marketing strategy. How are you getting the word out there that Prenda is available to your community, especially during the pandemic?

Jesse Simms:

That obviously has been a challenge because we lose that word of mouth, which for us was a big driver, as well as parents coming into the building. They come for story time, but they also have an older kid. They learn about Code Club, they show up for Code Club. They bring the younger kid, they start coding.

We've had to kind of retool and luckily we've been sort of fortunate that Prenda has opened up Code Club for remote access when the library closed. So we sort of integrated Code Club into our virtual programming. We've highlighted it on Facebook, had our city of Buckeye Recreation Department also highlight it. We've hosted some virtual live Zoom meetups twice a month as well. Really a lot of what we're seeing with it now is that we're getting those super users or my guess is it's people using it for curriculum for homeschoolers because we're seeing about 80% of the hours completed, compared to the previous time last year. The actual number of log-ins is not exactly the same, but the percentage usage is really close. It was much closer than I thought it was going to be chose. It shows it still has a great value to be flexible and modular and to be able to use remotely as well.

Tammy Ross:

It sounds like it lends itself pretty well to that virtual learning environment that a lot of kids are in right now.

Jesse Simms:

Right.

Tammy Ross:

So how does the library support kids in moving through, I think they're called workouts and missions in the product or the platform?

Jesse Simms:

Yeah. So for me, the biggest thing is being a cheerleader for the kids because coding is a lot like learning a language and there's going to be frustration and roadblocks. What we want from staff is to not just cheerlead, but also facilitate, asking questions of peers and trying different approaches because this goes to those fundamental bedrock skills where it's important to know that in life, many times you will have a specific question and it will not have a specific answer.

Coding teaches you that very quickly, you're going to say, "How do I do this very specific thing?" If you just give them the answer, if you know, you're not really serving them. If you let them explore and reach out and move around and ask friends and look up online, not only are they going to answer their specific question eventually, they're going to learn a lot more in the process. They're going to learn how to communicate with other kids. They're going to learn how to formulate questions. They're going to learn how to integrate information from multiple sources. So for us, it's really important that we just create that environment and we have staff members that are willing to encourage the kids and also give them that space to keep working through something without caving and giving them the answer right away.

Tammy Ross:

That critical inquiry is something you hear about a lot in the school space. I think it's the National School Library Standards that the AASL has out there that talks about a lot of the skills that you were talking about, so that's really cool to hear. That brings me to my very last question for you. How much staff time is devoted to facilitating a Code Club? Hopefully we eventually get back to some semblance of normalcy where people are back in person and visiting the library. How much time is devoted to facilitating a code club, and how is it different in person versus virtual?

Jesse Simms:

So pre-COVID, when we were hosting them in person, I would say it was about four hours of staff time per week, of which two of those hours were hosting the actual Code Club. Majority of that time is setting up tables and chairs and laptops and making sure that everything's charged and all that good stuff, working with the parents, and all that.

Now that we're in this virtual environment, it's much less. It's essentially going to be your marketing time for your outreach as well as your time to schedule and host a Zoom meet up if you're doing Zoom meetups that way. Again, like I mentioned at the top, that was the biggest appeal for us, is how do we have low staff-intensive programming that can have high impact? Most of our programming that's high impact is also really high staff time so we're excited and we are excited to continue to see Prenda grow and add new features and we're also very excited to hopefully see our kids back soon in Code Club.

It is challenging because we do love to see that camaraderie, to see a kid come in their very first day and they're nervous and they sit there in their little shell. Then they go through the hour of code and go through some of the curriculum and then eventually you get them asking questions of other people, and then they learn to socialize and communicate, like you mentioned, the critical inquiry. They go through those different stages of building those really important skills.

Tammy Ross:

That's great. It seems like it would probably go a long way towards building their confidence too.

Jesse Simms:

Yeah, definitely. We've definitely seen some kids find a space in Code Club where they get rewarded for the things that fit their natural temperament. We do have some kids that come in, throw the headphones on and go full Mark Zuckerberg in Social Network and tune everybody else out. But most of the kids come in there with friends and family and they share and they laugh and they have a good time.

Tammy Ross:

It sounds to me like Prenda has been a huge success at Buckeye Public Library, and the kids are using the software to create some really neat content. At the same time, like you said, they're developing some very valuable skills that will help them in other areas of their lives. Before I let you guys go, is there anything else you'd like to add, Luke or Jesse?

Jesse Simms:

I would maybe just add one more thing about funding. Obviously that's going to be on the forefront of a lot of people's minds, especially administrators, in trying to get the budget for something like this. I mentioned at the top that we first were able to start this program through a grant through the state library. So there's a lot of grant opportunities out there to begin something like this.

We also were fortunate enough to have our friends at the Buckeye Public Library also support us in expanding access to Code Club. I know some libraries now, especially in the current environment, your programming budget and your e-resources budget might seem like they have a lot more overlap now that you're doing everything virtually. There might be ways to use creative funding to try to find ways to bring this sort of programming into the library space.

Tammy Ross:

That's a really good point. The opportunities are out there, the funding opportunities are out there and you just need to find them.

Jesse Simms:

Right.

Tammy Ross:

Jesse and Luke, thank you so much. I want to let you know how pleased I am that you were able to join the podcast today and I've really enjoyed our conversation.

Jesse Simms:

Yes. Thank you very much for having me. I appreciate it.

Luke Miller:

Yeah, it's been great spending time with all of you.

Tammy Ross:

Thanks for checking out Long Overdue: Libraries and Technology. If you would like to learn more about how Prenda Code Club can help your library support coding education, please visit the link we've shared in the episode description. Thank you again for listening. We hope you'll tune in for the next episode.

Transcripts are generated using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers, and may contain errors.