Newark Students Learn How to Code and Think Big!

Barry Carter | The Star-Ledger | Email the author | Follow on Twitter

Keyon Vassell didn’t want to give up any of his Saturday, let alone eight hours of it. He’s a typical 13-year-old, who would rather relax and enjoy some downtime after a week of school.

But his mother, Kiyonna Thomas, says his eyes lit up when he brought home a flyer about a digital coding program from Newark’s North Star Academy Middle School, where he’s an eighth-grader.

The Urban League of Essex County was offering Newark Kids Code, a 10- week, free course on coding, and digital and computer technology that started in September at North Star Academy. It’s a field that speaks directly to young people who are fascinated with programming and how video games work.

Keyon admits to being a bit reluctant about wanting to spend so many Saturdays in a classroom, but the lure of science and math – and figuring out how characters move in a video game – was too strong.

“I was like, ‘Oh, Ma, do I have to go?'” said Keyon, who wants to create video games. “As I progressed, I was able to able to learn more and I actually enjoyed it more than I expected.”

Plus, it helps to have a buddy like Steve Sanchez, 13. He’s the one who applied a bit of friendly peer pressure on Keyon to sign up, when his classmate seemed apprehensive about attending the sessions. Science and math are Steve’s passions, too, at North Star. He’s so into the program that he’s been helping other students understand the material.

Getting up early every Saturday hasn’t been a problem for the duo, or the other 28 kids from North Star and Thirteenth Avenue School in Newark. As soon as the class begins at 9 a.m., the students get lost in a technological zone, their heads buried in their laptops.

They were there this past weekend, during an open house for the public to see what they’ve been learning. Idle conversation around them in the gymnasium didn’t break their concentration.

Hands went up when instructor Paul Rajah posed a question about the analog clock they were programming. If the young students were unsure about something, Rajah, a senior majoring in information technology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology in Newark, showed them what to do – with help from his eight NJIT classmates, who volunteer their time to teach the kids.

After eight weeks, the NJIT students are impressed. Rajah, who comes up with the lesson plans, said he sometimes finds himself running out of things to do for the kids.

“They just fly through it,” he said. “We’re learning, we’re programming, making decisions.”

They’ve done mazes, created a store, programmed autobiographical stories, a paddle and ball game, and more.

Emmanuel Dortu, an NJIT student, said he’s not sure what many of the teens will wind up doing with their lives, but he’s certain that computer science will stay with them.

“For those (who) really, really like it, (they) will take it forward and become programmers in the future.” he said.

The kids have been learning a coding program called Scratch, which helps young people to think and reason creatively. Developed at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Scratch is used by school-age youngsters in 150 countries and it is available in 40 languages.

It made its way to Newark after former city councilman Darrin Sharif saw a presentation about it – on his smartphone. Sharif, the kids code program director for the Urban League, said the agency funded the demonstration program with a $50,000 grant from the state Department of Community Affairs. Students were selected based on federal poverty guidelines.

“We have to prepare people for the pipeline,” said Sharif, speaking about future technology jobs. “We want our kids ready for them.”

Although the grant runs out next month, the Urban League plans to start a new session in January, as it seeks funding and a partnership with Newark Public Schools to expand the program to more kids.

Meanwhile, these kids are hooked and they understand the value of this experience. Even after the program is over, Sharif said the NJIT students will continue to meet with kids who want to strengthen their coding skills.

“I’m learning to think like a computer,” said Aze Williams, an eighth-grader at Thirteen Avenue School. “I’m learning to understand a deeper level of technology.”

Aze, 13, said she plans to use the technology in a career as a holistic neuroscientist, which she gladly explained is the use of plants to create natural medicine.

With that, she has lofty ambitions, too.

“I’m going to cure mental illness such as schizophrenia,” she said. “That’s what I’m going to dedicate my life to.”

If you are a parent, Kenneth Aboagye, 12, of North Star, highly recommends that your children get involved.

“This is amazing,” he said. “We’re making games, we’re making short stories, drawing our own characters and making them say stuff.”

And then there’s Nikolas Figueroa, 11, another North Star student. He sees himself as the next Steve Jobs. Most important, Nikolas said he’s “astonished” that so many people are willing to help Newark students pattern themselves after someone like the technology giant and entrepreneur.

That’s easy to understand, Nikolas. Newark students are visionaries, just like him.

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