Coding: The Next Generation

Programming used to be daunting. Now kids write computer code for fun - while still in grade school.

By Michelle Valigursky

Story Photo

Start Code offers computer programming lessons for kids. Here, Founder Scott Blanck 12MBA with some happy coders.

In less than an hour, kids learn how to create computerized ghost characters that chase fleeing yellow figures in an on-screen sequence. For Scott Blanck 12MBA, teaching kids coding in languages like Scratch and Python is the first step to unlocking creative potential. “Knowing how to code and what the tools can do is a future differentiator,” he explains.

Blanck founded his company Start Code in April of 2012. The idea that would eventually become Start Code began with a simple question posed by Computerworld.com: “How are students learning programming in a post-BASIC world?” (BASIC is a family of general-purpose, high-level programming languages whose design philosophy emphasizes ease of use; the name is an acronym from Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code, according to Wikipedia.)

Blanck considered the question. “I grew up and first learned how to program in BASIC so I was curious how kids are starting today. Second, as a father this jumped out as a potentially fun project to do with my son who was entering middle school.”

A short time later, Blanck founded Start Code, Atlanta’s only year-round programming instruction lab for students in elementary, middle, and high school.

The Coding Movement Begins

A student’s future growth is important to Blanck. At Start Code, classes are geared toward teaching students real programming languages, but done so with a sense of play instead of a dry computer science textbook mentality.

Coding

Even young children can learn to write computer code to create programs. Here, Blanck coaches a student on how to write in the Python programming language.

In addition, the work students create during labs will build a digital portfolio of “creative technology-oriented projects that demonstrates a strong ability to excel in high school, college, and beyond.”

Through a combination of mentoring, coaching, and self-paced hands-on work in locations around Atlanta, having fun is as much a part of the Start Code experience as is learning. In an era where young people dominate high tech entrepreneurial startups, and interactive technology applications emerge daily, it’s only natural for kids to want to create for themselves.

Parents, too, are becoming increasingly invested in enabling their children with the tools for long-term personal and professional success. “There are several important reasons for kids to learn programming,” Blanck explains. “Programming engages a creative use of technology. Programming skills cross all boundaries of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) spectrum. And learning one programming language makes it easier to learn a second and third.”

So how does Start Code tackle this important educational initiative? Using free computer programming languages that work on both Mac and PC platforms, “Our labs go beyond the traditional classroom setting by creating a flexible and fun place that teaches topics like Scratch, Python, Java, and more. Our students are programming games, telling multimedia stories, and learning about technology,” Blanck describes. “Scratch teaches programming concepts with immediate feedback while also offering an online community of over 3 million user-created projects. And Python gets the student typing ‘real code’ and getting used to seeing, reading, problem solving, and thinking in code structures. Python also prepares them for later curly-bracket programming languages with more complex syntax and concepts as they progress,” Blanck writes on the Start Code blog.

Classes are designed to be flexible, and Blanck recommends that students use laptops to complete the work. While most students bring their own laptops, others are available for rental. “If students work on a laptop, the likelihood that they’ll continue that work at home is really strong,” he says. “We witness the incredible excitement they feel when they digitally make something happen. Best of all, this enthusiasm leads to tremendous pride and self-confidence. Plus, they get to show off a little or make their classmates laugh, which is how my friends and I got started at their age.”

For twenty years, Blanck has immersed himself in technology as a programmer, network engineer, and hands-on IT Director, among other roles. After earning his MBA from Emory’s Goizueta Business School in 2012, he took the leap into entrepreneurial business ownership and founded Start Code with the full support of his two kids and his wife, Dr. Heidi Blanck 99PhD, Chief, Obesity Prevention and Control Branch at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Many of my professors at Emory inspired me to ‘do what you love.’ This is what I love, and I’m having as much fun as the students.”

Learn to Compete

“We need to teach kids to be technology creators, not just consumers. By shifting their perspective and giving them the tools they need to take charge, we’re enabling the next generation of technology entrepreneurs, ”Blanck explains.

Mistakes, Blanck says, are an important part of the learning curve and are inevitable in programming. “The goal is to foster an attitude of fearlessness and willingness to fail and get back up again. This is where learning in real life often happens.”

Emory Professor of Information Systems and Operations Management and Start Code advisor Benn Konsynski puts coding into the career perspective. As he points out, “The job you will find in five years does not exist today. Start Code was created to teach a 21st Century skillset."

For Angie Waddell 90Ox 92C, founder of the Get Grounded Teen Studio, having Blanck teach coding this summer at her non-profit facility near Emory’s campus was a smart move. “Start Code camps provide meaningful enrichment for kids. Better yet, coding is fun, too,” she says. “Coding is exactly the type of skill our kids need to compete in today’s business world.”  

Blanck knows coding is the key to innovation and technological advancement. “I want to help the kids see new possibilities for their future. I hope to bump into students ten or twenty years from now, and can’t wait to see what they’ve created.”

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Michelle Valigursky