Coding with Kids: Nurturing Middle Schoolers’ Interest in Computer Science

Students sit on the floor in lobby of Skirkanich Hall, working with laptops and construction paper.

When Desiree Penaranda (CIS’20) asked the wide-eyed 11-year-old girls gathered around her why they wanted to be in the Girls Who Code after- school club, she was astounded by their answers.

“They all said they wanted to be hackers,” says Penaranda. Surprised by their responses, Penaranda and her co-leader Deniz Kecik (CIS’20) made a quick pivot. They showed the girls the computer coding projects they were working on as under- graduates at Penn Engineering.

“Deniz and I learned that the girls were as interested in computer games as we were, so we focused on that. In 12 weeks, the girls designed and coded their own race car game,” explains Penaranda. “From there, we moved on to showing them how to develop their own web pages. They learned they have what it takes to master coding and better understand the utility of computers. I was so proud of them.”

More than 30 Penn Engineering computer science students have taught 135 middle school students in the Philadelphia area in multiple after-school coding clubs since 2017, under the auspices of the Fife-Penn CS Academy. The Penn Engineering club leaders are helping to break down barriers in education and inspire young students to consider computer science careers.

“Our goal is two-fold,” explains Rita Powell, director of Diversity and Belonging in the Department of Computer and Information Science and co-founder of the Academy. “We want to nurture middle school students’ interest in computer science and their tenacity as problem solvers. By placing Penn students in the classroom as club leaders, we are also helping to increase their confidence.”

The Academy, funded by the Lori and Mark Fife Foundation, is geared to enhance students’ education and prepare them for the 21st century economy. “Learning a skill like coding can help to increase the professional opportunities that young scholars in our Philadelphia schools have and will help them become better problem solvers,” says Mark Fife (W’78), Academy co-founder. “By providing this opportunity, we hope to create the next generation of entrepreneurs and creative thinkers.”

The Academy runs 10 separate Girls Who Code and Boys Who Code clubs in five local middle schools: Penn Alexander School, Henry C. Lea Elementary, KIPP West Philadelphia Preparatory Charter School, James Rhoads School and Bala Cynwyd Middle School. Two Penn Engineering computer science students teach between 5 and 19 boys or girls in each club.

Because a majority of the student club leaders are women like Penaranda, it does not come as a surprise that they are most proud of teaching other girls to learn to believe in themselves and undertake a task that has typically been dominated by men. “I have been able to motivate and encourage girls about computer science just as I was encouraged back in high school,” explains Penaranda. “Without that encouragement, I would not be preparing for a career I love.”

But helping younger students learn to code is also a way for Penn Engineering computer science majors to give back to the Philadelphia community and help change some preconceptions about coding and computer science. “There’s an idea that you have to be ‘techy’ to pursue fields such as computer science and this can be discouraging for people who are not naturally like that,” says Alara Gebes (ECON’20; CIS’20), who has led both Girls Who Code and Boys Who Code clubs. “I think it’s crucial to show kids that it’s all about the passion for learning, having an inquisitive mind and challenging yourself. I want my students to learn that no matter what field they go into, they shouldn’t let such norms stop them from trying something that really interests them.”

Fife and Powell are encouraged by the interest in the clubs, both from the middle schoolers and the Penn Engineering students. In the coming years, they hope to have clubs running in 20 schools. “We want to give as many young people as possible the opportunity to learn, create and succeed at whatever career they decide to pursue,” says Fife.

The clubs also impact the Penn Engineering student leaders. Many say they learn so much more about themselves when they make the commitment to share their love for computer science. “The boys in my club are always teeming with excitement,” says Ryan Martinez (CIS’22), who teaches a Boys Who Code club at Lea Elementary School. “It astounds me that in lieu of playing basketball or other sports after school, they choose to come to coding club. Something like that requires hard work and can seem like school.”

By helping his students learn to code and persist to solve tougher coding problems, Martinez has learned some valuable lessons about himself. “Taking on this responsibility requires a tremendous amount of patience, and I’ve learned I need to improve mine,” he says. “But more importantly, I’ve learned that what I teach the kids applies to me too. To push through on a tough problem, I need to be okay about not getting the right answer right away and to find a way to keep working without getting frustrated.”