By Ryan MacDonald
What ever happened to Saturday morning cartoons where kids sit around in their pajamas until noon and eat cereal on the couch?
For the kids of Seattle CoderDojo, those days are long gone. Instead, these young, aspiring computer-scientists get up early to learn the basics of coding.
For two hours every week, they learn how to write code, create games, and engage with technology.
“One of things I try to do is encourage kids to be tech people,” says Greg Bulmash, founder and organizer of the club’s regional chapter.
Bulmash oversees the weekly meet ups that run as five week “sprints” spaced throughout the school year with help from a group of dedicated volunteer instructors. One of the club’s missions is to inspire and encourage kids to create technology and, in turn, instill in them life long confidence and problem solving abilities.
“This is going to improve their lives in a whole bunch of different ways that will translate to more happiness and success,” he says. “They’re not held down by self defeating narratives.”
For Bulmash, the path to mentoring young minds started as a personal journey. In 2013, he noticed his son was struggling to understand the basics of an HTML course offered by Code Academy, an online interactive tutorial.
“He was getting frustrated because it was telling him to click buttons that didn’t even exist any more,” he remembers. ”And he was feeling stupid because he couldn’t find a button.”
At the time, Bulmash didn’t know about CoderDojo, an international organization that helps children around the world with tech programming, so his first instinct was to start a MeetUp group where parents who wanted to teach children the basics of coding could come together and share information.
Then by chance, he met a University of Washington student who told him about the coding club. “He said, ‘It’s really cool. You know, it’s a great environment for kids and it’s social,’’ recalls Bulmash. But when he went home that night and looked up the nearest club, he was out of luck.
“The closest CoderDojo was in San Francisco.”
That put into motion his research in discovering what it required to start a local chapter, like finding the right space to host and enough people interested in teaching. With strong ties to the tech community, Bulmash knew the right opportunity would present itself.
“I just beat the pavement until I found some place that would actually host us,” he says.
Soon he found sponsorship for a host campus at Microsoft, and in the fall of 2013, Seattle CoderDojo held its first Saturday morning meet up with 19 students.
Now in its third year, the club sees about 80-100 students each Saturday when “sprints” are in session. Each “sprint” lasts five weeks and they are spaced throughout the year to give parents, volunteers and kids a break from coding. The next sprint begins on July 8 and runs through August 5. All sessions are free.
Volunteer instructors assist the young coders with curriculums and tutorials that are geared toward experience level and knowledge. Coming from a wide range of companies like Amazon, Ticketmaster, Microsoft, Google and Facebook, the volunteers share a love for tech and helping children. But it’s important to note that the instructors are not teachers.
“We are not people with teaching degrees,” says Bulmash, who works as a Tech Evangelist at Amazon. “We’re volunteers who are doing the best that we can.”
One instructor has no background in computer science but that doesn’t matter. Her love of programming is enough, says Bulmash. “She’s always been into tech and she taught herself enough programming to help work the beginners room and just loved it.”
Ultimately, changing a child’s relationship with computer-science and technology is something Bulmash and the volunteers are trying to achieve, whatever they end up doing with their lives.
“A lot of them are not going to go on to be the next generation of programmers,” he says. “A lot of them are going to be the next generations of doctors or history teachers or artists.”
With the skills and knowledge of basic programming and the ability to break down large problems into small pieces, Bulmash believes this type of education is invaluable. “This is going to open up their vistas, this is going to open up their opportunities.”
As for his own son? “He decided that coding wasn’t really for him,” Bulmash jokes.
Though he messes around with programming every once and a while (“he wanted to make a program that asked you your birthday and told you your astrological sign”), he’s more interested in things like 3d design, origami and illustration.
But that’s OK. His early days of coding are not all lost.
“He’s got the confidence that he can always do a little tech if he needs to.”