Saturday's AIM CoderDojo draws dozens of Omaha teens to code

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Posted: Monday, March 17, 2014 12:00 am

Volunteer Nick Nisi (third from left) works with Christian Burk (far left) and his sons, James and Colin during Saturday's AIM CoderDojo at KANEKO in Omaha. 

On Saturday afternoon, St. Patrick’s Day revelers poured out of pubs in Omaha’s Old Market district, while more than 20 teenagers filed into KANEKO to participate in a technology education program that began in Ireland.

CoderDojo was founded in Cork, Ireland, in 2011 and quickly grew into an organization that boasts 354 “Dojos” in 39 countries around the world. Now Omaha is one of them as AIM, an Omaha-based non-profit, is in the pilot stages of the program focused on teaching children computer programming.

AIM launched the first CoderDojo events in Nebraska and western Iowa in February and the workshops have been filled to capacity with a waiting list ever since. Saturday, nearly two dozen students attended the Dojo for 13- to 17-year-olds at KANEKO.

AIM's youth and community engagement director Stefanie Ramsey said CoderDoJo was created to offer informal opportunities for kids to learn about technology. Ramsey recruits volunteer mentors to work in small groups with students of different ages and abilities. On Saturday, those mentors included professional educators, software developers and a college student.

Nick Nisi, an Omaha-based developer, has taught at several Dojos.

“I’m very passionate about technology and I think that whether you want to do this as a profession full-time or not, it’s a skill that can help you no matter where you go,” Nisi said.

Christian Burk, a Creighton University employee and father of two boys attending the workshop echoed Nisi’s statement.

“I want them not to miss out on the opportunity to have the kind of problem solving ability that I think this kind of work encourages.”

Burk stayed through the Dojo to participate and learn with his sons, James, 14, and Colin, 13. The three had high-level discussions about the possibilities of technology with Nisi as he worked with them on their projects.

Colin, a student at Lewis and Clark Middle School, says that he's interested in how computer programming knowledge might be applied to other disciplines such as scientific research. His older brother James, a freshman at Central High School, says he developed an interest in coding after his dad encouraged him to give it a try. He's not sure if he'll pursue it professionally.

"For now it’s a hobby,” James said. “But it’d be cool to do something like this in the future.”

Saturday’s Dojo, called “Exploring Programming Languages,” was geared toward 13- to 17-year-olds interested in learning HTML, Java and Ruby. The class attracted mostly boys, save for a table of four girls.

“We see this with any of the technology programs that we’ve done,” Ramsey said. “I would say that the Scratch (Dojos) for younger kids, we maybe have a few more girls but to get teenage girls…it’s a little bit harder.”

Ramsey is considering adding girls-only events in the fall to increase female participation. She thinks it would be less intimidating and more comfortable, she said.

The Dojos are often held in donated space such as KANEKO or the Omaha Children’s Museum. The students are self-guided and able to work at their own pace on their own projects. The events are free, though registration prior to the Dojo is required. Students can either bring their own computers or use tablets that are provided by AIM, so there is not an economic barrier to participation.

Ramsey says that AIM prefers to use space that doesn’t feel like a traditional classroom and she tries to maintain a three-to-one or four-to-one ratio with the students and mentors. She hopes to find more volunteers so that her current batch of mentors don’t burn out and more children can participate.

The next AIM CoderDojo will be at Thomas Jefferson High School in Council Bluffs on Saturday, March 22. For a complete list of AIM CoderDojo events, visit the organization's website

Credits: Event photos by Katrina Markel. 

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