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Davis Arts Center: The art of digital literacy

By From page A3 | June 25, 2014

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Leading Davis Code Camp instructor Hanna Moradi works with one of the campers. Courtesy photo

It’s now widely accepted that education in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) develops creative problem-solving skills that our children will need for success in all sectors of society.

With this in mind, President Obama has lent his support to a movement to include computer programming classes in required high school coursework. Although programming classes are not yet required in local schools, online classes have proliferated in response to demand.

However, most of these courses are dull, repetitive and not geared toward younger students.

Enter Davis Code Camp, which is partnering with Davis Arts Center to offer classes and camps in computer programming specifically designed to engage kids.

Jessica Chabot, a retired physician, and her husband Ray Valdes, a computer analyst with over 30 years of programming experience, founded Davis Code Camp after taking their own kids to “hackathon” competitions sponsored by Google, Yahoo and other big tech companies. The family won a few prizes and found that computing together encouraged creativity, brought them closer — and was loads of fun.

“It was such a positive experience for our family,” Chabot said, “that we wanted to find a way to equip other children and families for the (digital) future that’s coming at them like a speeding train.”

The foundation of Davis Code Camp classes is that the experience has to be fun and contain lots of positive reinforcement.

“Most online programming classes have a 70-percent failure rate,” Chabot said. “We’ve found that kids need lots of personal attention in order to succeed.”

The classes are taught under Chabot and Valdes’ supervision by UC Davis students (or recent graduates), most from the design and computer sciences departments. The ratio of students to teacher is kept around 6 to 1. Parental involvement is encouraged, too.

“Parents are welcome to sit in on the classes and we provide plenty of materials for them to be able to work with their kids at home,” Chabot said. “We know the kids will continue to learn if they have family support.”

Davis Code Camp currently offers two classes at the Arts Center: Scratch Programming & Robotics, for ages 7 to 14, and Minecraft Game Programming, for ages 8-14. Scratch, an introductory programming language developed at MIT, is given a real-world application as the students use it to manipulate actual robots. Sensors allow the robots to be programmed to move, avoid obstacles, change color and make sounds — a perfect recipe for fun, kid-friendly learning.

Minecraft classes are based on a popular online game — there are 40 million users world-wide, Chabot said — in which kids create their own worlds using lego-like building blocks. In the class, kids learn to use more advanced programming languages to modify the game, which most are already familiar with, by creating objects that they can transfer into the game, for example. Being able to enhance their own game experience is a huge reinforcement, Valdes said, because learning advanced skills allows them to affect the game in more ways.

Davis Code Camp classes are inclusive and designed to create a comfortable environment for both boys and girls, Chabot said. It’s an unfortunate fact that girls’ participation in the computer sciences has fallen dramatically — from 37 percent in the 1980s to 18 percent today, according to a recent Associated Press article by Martha Mendoza.

To combat that negative trend, Davis Code Camp recruits both male and female instructors (the current lead instructor happens to be a female graduate of the design department) and stresses collaboration rather than competition. Girls attending the class are given plenty of opportunities to work together, and female participation has been steadily increasing up to about 1/3 of enrolled students, as girls invite their friends and parents realize their daughters’ — as well as their sons’ — needs are accounted for.

Chabot said that she and Ray would consider offering an all-female class if there were enough demand.

“Unfortunately, there is opposition at every level to girls’ participation in technology,” she said, “so special efforts are needed to protect girls’ interests.”

Three new mini-camps for boys and girls have already been added to the Arts Center schedule and began taking enrollments this week: Scratch Programming & Robotics, July 7-11 and Aug. 11-14; and Minecraft Game Programming, July 14-17. So give Davis Arts Center a call at 530-756-4100 to sign up your child — and give him or her a head-start on digital literacy this summer.

Erie Vitiello

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