Creativity can take many forms. When we think of art, we generally think about the paintings and sculptures we pass by in a gallery, or a musical, or poetic performance we catch in a café or performance hall. Rarely do we think about the art of code, and creating new facets of technology, like apps, webpages, or games. We don’t think about the creativity it takes to find the little details that can make technology more affective or more fun. We don’t usually think about the art of caring, of educating, of using our talents, knowledge, and the creativity it takes to better the lives of others. Michael Simmons is expressing this art through his recent founding of a new chapter of CoderDojo in Southern Connecticut.
Our mission is to create a fun, collaborative environment to explore STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics).” Simmons says. “Through play, the youth can build memorable experiences with mentors to ignite passion for technology at an early age.
CoderDojo as a global organization is, as its website suggests, a “global network of free computer programming clubs for young people.” CoderDojo is supported by the CoderDojo Foundation, which is based out of Dublin, Ireland, and aids programs around the world aimed at educating people from age 7-17 on various areas of coding.
Michael Simmons decided to take this mission to the Southern Connecticut community:
I became involved when I received an invite through a group on meetup.com (Coders for Good) to become a mentor for a non-profit organization called CoderDojo NYC. After receiving the invite I looked into what exactly was a CoderDojo. The idea of CoderDojo was very intriguing and it was amazing how many chapters were established around the world. But there was one small problem. The closest dojo to Connecticut was 37 miles away. With this discovery, I saw the perfect opportunity to get involved by opening a chapter and give back to the community.
The program is a great addition to a community, as the advanced concepts of coding and computer programming are not something normally taught in schools, at least not in such thorough detail. It also brings young people of similar interests together. Computer programming can often be a solo art, and CoderDojo harnesses this common interest to create friendships, not just enhance personal skills. Simmons says:
We teach the youth, ages of 7 – 17, how to design, code and develop websites, apps, and games while exploring technology in an informal and creative environment. Within the Southern Connecticut Chapter there is a focus on community, peer learning, youth mentoring and self-led learning, as well as soft skills – like self-awareness and a positive work ethic.
Simmons has a strong background in computer programming:
From getting my very first computer, the ‘Commodore 64’ in 1982, I always liked working with computers. But it wasn’t until 2002 when I researched how web pages were created. After I read my first book on web development, ‘HTML 4 for the World Wide Web: Visual QuickStart Guide by Elizabeth Castro’ and created a couple examples, I was hooked. This is when I found my love for coding. Being self-taught with over 12 years of experience, I’ve built websites for various Fortune 500 clients including but not limited to AARP, AIG, Bank of America, Cingular, Motorola and Washington Mutual.
Simmons followed his love for coding into a career, which he continues today, making him a knowledgeable resource and mentor for students interested in coding. Simmons notes,
Currently, I am a Senior Applications Developer for Starwood Hotels & Resorts. While at Starwood, I’ve developed mobile and desktop sites for all of Starwood’s Brands and architected the framework for the redesign and modernization of Starwood’s desktop brand sites such as but not limited to Sheraton, Tribute Portfolio, Le Meridien and Design Hotels™.
What makes the Southern Connecticut chapter of CoderDojo so special is that it is run entirely by volunteers; people who have chosen to commit their free time to the education of young people without expecting anything in return. “Our volunteers come from corporations, organizations, colleges/universities and other communities within Fairfield County, Connecticut including but not limited to Starwood Hotels & Resorts, FactSet, The Business Council of Fairfield County and Norwalk Community College,” Simmons says. “The students get the personalized attention of teachers who are genuinely excited about technology and helping other people. To have volunteers as teachers can also provide the important lesson that we should share our talents to better the lives of other people, even if we cannot be repaid.”
The experience of each student is truly meaningful, as they begin to build a small community of peers and learn about the possibilities of technology. Simmons says:
I think it means a lot to a young person to learn how to design and develop web pages, apps and games because it is a rich learning experience for them. They learn life and soft skills such as solving problems, designing projects, communicating ideas, working as a team, how to persevere in the face of challenges and positive work ethics. These skills are important for everyone, not just people who will grow up to become scientists, engineers, or computer scientists.
The concepts Simmons talks about are certainly skills eventually acquired through traditional education, but are definitely not the focus of schools today. This makes programs like CoderDojo essential for many intelligent students, who may excel academically, but not socially. When the focus of school is simply the curriculum, these soft skills may be set aside for the purposes getting through material. CoderDojo, as a student’s choice rather than an obligation, can take the time to give each student abilities such as problem solving, communication, and community building. Simmons says:
CoderDojo Southern Connecticut builds community by developing positive relationships with the youth, as we encourage the youth to be engaged in community activities they develop the skills needed and become empowered to be an effective leader. When the youth realize they have the power to influence decisions at a community or school level they will rise amongst their peers and begin to show signs of leadership.
While the Southern Connecticut CoderDojo is a fairly new chapter, Simmons has already seen first-hand the true rewards of participating in the program.
After our kickoff workshop (How to create a web page using HTML5 and CSS) in November, a parent personally came to thank me for starting Southern Connecticut chapter,” Simmons says. “She went on to tell me about how her boys could not stop talking about CoderDojo. She said, ‘the whole ride home they were talking about CoderDojo, coding and how they were going to become CIA agents.’
Computers and technology are changing and adapting at a rate faster than ever before. It is extremely important in this day and age for young people to have better expertise in these fields, as more and more technology replaces old inventions. More careers are going digital, and it will be helpful to be prepared for that. The STEM subjects are both practical and ever changing areas of study, which is why it is important that students have a better understanding of modern technology. Even if some students do not go into the coding field as they become adults, this knowledge will help them in nearly any career they choose in the future, as more and more fields use new technology to work more efficiently. Simmons talks about the importance of teaching the STEM subjects when he says:
It is very important because we live in a technology-fueled world. Coders, UX/UI Designers and Engineering Technologist are quickly becoming a prized, 21st-century skill. Plus, it encourages kids to become creators, not just consumers, of the technology they use.
Becoming a creator, rather than a consumer, can be key to staying ahead in the technological world. A creator can develop the next app that could kick start their own future business. Once a young person becomes in touch with their creativity, their possibilities are endless for the future (even if they choose not to go into the STEM field). A young imagination has incredible potential, which can be utilized by continually stimulating it with learning new skills they may not have learned otherwise.
It means a lot to me to be able to give back to the community by teaching kids how to code and getting them excited and inspired about technology,” Simmons says. “Mentors and colleagues have shared their knowledge about technology with me throughout my career. Which has played a significant role with the evolution of my skills as a web developer.
Simmons has begun a life-changing program for many intelligent and creative students, passing on his extensive knowledge of technology to young minds. The CoderDojo experience is educational but also communal, teaching students how to work well with others, build their self-esteem, and become part of a community.
When asked what we should expect from CoderDojo in the future, Simmons says:
To continue the success we had getting kids excited and inspired about technology as we did with our very first workshop in November. We are focused on developing fresh curriculums for future events.