Getting everyone excited about code

By Vanessa Bakker. Posted

The coding club for adults at Almere public library

Vanessa Bakker shares how she overcame her hesitations and, in response to local interest, started a friendly and informal programming club for adults

I am very motivated to tell people — both children and adults — that coding is fun. I had already been running a CoderDojo club (for young people aged 7–17) at the public library in Almere for over a year when I approached the programme manager there about starting a friendly and informal coding club for adults. This came about after many of the parents at the CoderDojo asked me where they could learn programming skills. So I spoke with the library and they felt it was a good idea to try it. They were interested to see whether it was something that people would sign up for. By the second day, we were fully booked and we had 40 people on our waiting list — and so we realised that it was kind of a success!

I started the adults’ coding club in September 2020 with Florus van der Rhee, who is also a volunteer at my CoderDojo. We planned to run ten sessions in total: five on Scratch and five on Python. We held the first two sessions at the library, but have held all the following sessions online due to coronavirus restrictions. Unlike with CoderDojo, we charged participants a small fee for the block of sessions — not to make a profit, but to inspire a sense of commitment from the participants.

Diverse backgrounds

We have 15 participants at the club. The youngest one is 18, and the oldest is 76 — a gentleman who wants to keep his mind fresh. They are all from different backgrounds: we have full-time parents, students, people involved in social and community work, and even a yoga instructor. Initially, I was very curious about what attracted everyone to the club. Here in the Netherlands, we have the word gezellig. In English, it can be understood as ‘cosy’. And that’s what our club is like: it’s a place to get to know programming in a friendly environment. It’s not competitive — there are no exams — and the focus is on peer-to-peer learning and becoming comfortable with code.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of women who signed up to our club — twelve out of our 15 participants are women. Unfortunately, I think the perception is still out there that coding isn’t for girls. We still have a lot of work to do in getting girls and women to believe that programming is for everybody. When I asked the women about what attracted them to the club, they said that part of the reason was that there was a woman running the club — my face was on the advertisement! So it was kind of a role model thing, whereby they thought, “If she can do it, then I can do it.” So we have to make sure that there will be more role models to help women to think like that. They also liked the fact that the club had a low profile. It doesn’t matter if it doesn’t work out; the point is to come along, learn, and have fun. And that really helped women to get over their hesitation.

Challenging my apprehensions

While I was excited about starting the club for adults, I also had some apprehensions. Firstly, I am not a software engineer — I studied educational sciences at university. I was a little bit uncertain about working with the adult participants, because they want to do all of this creative stuff, and expect the club leader to be an expert in everything! They thought that because I was organising this coding club, I was a real coder, who studied computer science and works as a software engineer. In other words, someone who knows everything, which I don’t! And that was kind of scary for me. You can start something and think: “Oh, I have to know everything and then I can start.” But actually, I decided: “No, I’m just going to start.” And I don’t know everything. 

My co-host, Florus, also reassured me that it’s OK not to know everything right away. If someone asks a question that I don’t know the answer to, I can tell them that I’ll think about it and get back to them later. Real software engineers don’t know everything right away, either!

Teaching adults vs teaching children

I have been running the CoderDojo club for children for over a year. Some of the young people are 14 or 15 years old now, and have been attending for the whole year. And they say, “Well, yes, I love coding, and I really want to do something with coding after I graduate high school.” That’s part of why educators like me do it — to get people excited. Of course, nobody needs to go on to have a career in coding, but it is a bonus if they say they want to do it professionally. As long as they’re excited, that’s fine by me. Getting people excited about coding is something I was eager to achieve with my adult club participants, too.

I was a bit apprehensive about teaching adults, given that my experience up until now was mentoring children at my CoderDojo. As I mentioned previously, while I am confident coding in Scratch and Python, I don’t know everything — and initially, my adult participants assumed I had all the answers. They had thousands of questions that the children at my CoderDojo wouldn’t have. We used the free project resources from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, which have worked really well for us.

One of our participants told me that his teenage son had laughed when he told him we were coding in Scratch, because Scratch is mainly taught to children. I explained to the adults why I thought Scratch is a good language for learning the basics of coding; while it looks like a child-oriented environment, it is perfect for learning the basics, as many teachers will know! Also, to jump straight into Python in the beginning without having learnt Scratch would have been too big a step, in my opinion. Once I explained this to the adults, they were very happy to start with Scratch. They also learnt that some Scratch projects are quite advanced!

Final thoughts

Whether you are starting a programming club for children or adults, it’s important to recognise that you don’t need to have all the answers — just start. I’m very happy that I began my club for adults, and I am learning so much from it, too. One of the main things I’ve learnt is that you don’t have to be a top coder to get involved in something like this; being enthusiastic and having people skills are just as important as programming skills. I would also recommend surrounding yourself with people who want to learn, and who want to make a positive learning environment. And if you have those people, then you have a very good club.

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