California Students Teach Coding to Kids in Shelters

Two high school students from Orange County have made computer programming classes “cool” for homeless children.

by Theresa Walker, the Orange County Register / November 14, 2018

(TNS) — It’s Friday night and high school friends Milan Narula and Katherine McPhie are watching a game, celebrating with whoops and high fives every time someone scores. A group of college students in the room with them do the same.

But this is not football or basketball. It’s coding.

And the players are children from the Thomas House Family Shelter in Garden Grove. The youngest is 5.

The youngsters are learning how to get the Angry Bird over to the Naughty Pig to, well, crush it. They do it by assembling blocks of coding — “turn left,” “turn right,” “move forward” and so on — to create the correct path on the grid.

They use Chromebooks supplied by Narula and McPhie’s Open Sesame Coding for Kids project. Seven volunteers the girls recruited and trained assist the coding novices. Four volunteers are from UC Irvine, two from University High, and one from Troy High.

All the seats are taken in the transitional shelter’s Youth Development Room. It’s a tight space packed with books, games and learning materials on the second floor of an apartment complex that houses homeless families. Enrichment activities at Thomas House include karate, ballet and yoga, but this is the first coding class.

Thomas House executive director Natalie Julien didn’t hesitate: “When they approached us, it was kind of a no-brainer.”

Ahead of the competition

Open Sesame Coding for Kids is about having fun, but also introduces children who are impoverished and dealing with serious life challenges to the possibilities of a future in technology and computer science — both girls and boys, from kindergarten to eighth grade.

“A lot of kids didn’t know what coding is,” Narula says.

“Once they got started,” McPhie adds, “They were like, this is cool.”

They were introduced to the basics at a young age — McPhie, 16, through games her grandfather taught her on the computer, and Narula, 15, at a summer camp in seventh grade. McPhie wants a career in science; Narula is thinking about teaching.

The girls are bringing their workshops to shelters for victims of domestic violence, emergency shelters for youth in foster care, and temporary stops for homeless families that include Thomas House and the Orange County Rescue Mission’s Village of Hope in Tustin.

Says Narula, “They may not even think that this could be a job to earn money when they grow up.”

The enterprising girls won a total of $20,000 in prize money this past year as finalists and then winners in the Dragon Challenge competition sponsored by the Dragon Kim Foundation, and they are using it to buy more Chromebooks and expand their reach.

Their project fits the mission of the foundation, created by the parents of Dragon Kim. Dragon Kim and his friend, Justin Lee, died in 2015 during a camping trip to Yosemite. A huge tree limb fell on the tent where the boys, both 14, slept.

Dragon Kim, a music student at Orange County School of the Arts in Santa Ana, had started a music instruction project at Camp OCSA, the free after-school arts program for underserved children in Santa Ana.

The projects supported by Dragon Kim Foundation include programs in the arts, academics and athletics.

“He had a talent for teaching young kids,” Kim’s parents, Daniel and Grace Kim of Tustin, say about their son on the foundation’s website. “We believe that this is some of the work he would have pursued.”

Quick growth

Open Sesame Coding for Kids grew out of an experiment McPhie and her sister tried at Village of Hope two summers ago. She wanted to see if the kids liked it. They did.

Both McPhie and Narula, who met through their mothers, had experience working with children. McPhie spent Friday nights playing games and coloring with kids at Village of Hope; Narula dedicated afternoons as a homework tutor at a Human Options domestic violence shelter.

They applied for the Dragon Kim grant in January and beat out more than 150 contestants in a “Shark Tank”-style throw down. First, they won $5,000 as one of four finalists. In September, the judges awarded them the $15,000 grand prize.

The girls had to create a budget and a project plan, recruit and train volunteers, and reach out to shelters to arrange the coding sessions. They’ve trained more than 60 college and high school students. They’ve lined up coding classes for several other groups that serve children.

The Thomas House class marks the fifth time for Monserrat “Monsie” Palabrica to serve as a volunteer. A computer science major in her fourth year at UCI, Palabrica, 21, didn’t get interested in computer science until her senior year in high school.

She sees the long-term value of introducing children to coding at a young age: “I wish they had this when I was in grade school so I could have developed as I grew.”

©2018 The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.). Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.