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Kids who code: Libraries offer coding classes to youngsters

Millions of jobs available in coding, but introduction may be intimidating in college

Turns out, elephants can fly. As can hippopotamuses, cats and monkeys.

At least they can in the computer world.

Kids were excitedly pointing at computer screens and showing one another their flying creations during a recent coding class at Reddick Library in Ottawa.

"Oh, I did it! I know how to do it now!" exclaimed 10-year-old Grady Mason after figuring out a tricky problem.

He was struggling to get his cartoon cat to drift through space but finally solved the problem.

Youth Services Assistant Teresa Taylor and Technology Coordinator Stefanie Sullivan were overseeing the students as they programmed cartoon characters to perform a variety of tasks in a coding software for kids called Scratch.

The library has offered a coding class for kids for just over a year after they received donations of Chromebooks, and the Scratch program is a new one they've been learning about.

Taylor said she didn't know much about coding before teaching the class, but the programs are easy to understand and they've collectively learned a lot.

The kids have taken to it well.

"At first we weren't sure. Do they think it's work? But I've only heard good things so far," Taylor said as many children nodded in agreement as they continued to build their programs. "And they smile when they leave and they come back."

A 2015 report from Burning Glass, a job market analytics firm, found that 7 million job openings required coding skills. But some students can find programming intimidating when introduced at a college level, which is why nonprofit encourages participation in computer science at a young age.

It seems to be working for those attending the monthly classes at Reddick Library.

Maggie Wiegman, 9, was a whiz with the software and made her way around to help other students, including Reagan Carlson.

"I had an idea of what it was before I started doing this, but I wasn't very good at it," Reagan said with a laugh.

She's gotten better and explained the process of grabbing a cartoon character from the menu then creating a "loop" with two orange brackets and making actions with the blue brackets. Maggie worked beside her and showed how she could enter in "10" to get the character to move 10 steps to the right or "-10" to get the character to move to the left.

Maggie said she's been attending the classes since the beginning but doesn't have a specific favorite animation.

"I really like coding. I think all of it was my favorite," Maggie said. "I did some at home but this is helping me to get better."

And it's not always only in front of a computer screen.

Students at Streator Public Library interact with Ozobots, which are tiny robots that are trained to react and move based on certain colors.

"Oh (kids) have a lot of fun with it. It's for younger kids to give an introduction to how you can give instructions to a machine and make it do things," said Streator Public Library Director Cynthia Maxwell. "It's the basic steps of how you can manipulate things if you know its language, and if the language is colors then it's following that language."

Maxwell said once they understand that concept, they also have programming books to help with vocabulary and understanding other programming languages. She added the library is looking into offering additional Raspberry Pi and Linux classes.

She said it helps kids enhance their computer skills, even the non-programming ones.

"Also the job market is changing ... this is an ever-growing field so we need to keep up in the libraries," she said.

Landry Brenbarger, 11, visited Reddick Library for his first class and said he found the material challenging but fun.

Taylor added that her favorite part of the class is when students get out of their chairs and work with one another to solve a problem and celebrate success together.

It grants them valuable computer skills, and more.

"Even if they don't want to go into computers, it helps them to learn not to quit when something is frustrating," Taylor said. "Now, when something is frustrating they realize, 'It's just something I don't know and now I'm going to learn something. I'm not dumb.' I like that about this. Don't be afraid of not knowing."

Reddick Library hosts the coding class from 4 to 5 p.m. on the second Monday of the month. Students can jump into any class and work at their own pace. Streator Public Library brings out the Ozobots when a number of kids arrive and inquire about it as well on days when the library knows that local schools will be out of session.

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