San Antonio Youth Code Jam holds an annual community-wide jam to introduce children and teens ages 7–17 to the wonders of computer programming. I registered my kids for the event on Saturday, September 16, 2017 at Education Service Center Region 20. We all had fun, and the jam also opened their eyes to the possibilities of careers in computer science.
Registration is free thanks to generous sponsors, but fills up fast. This was the first year that both F.T. (age 10) and G.N. (age 7) were old enough to participate, so I signed them up right away. The organizers ask you to bring your own laptop (and charger), but they have a few laptops to share. Adults must stay with their kids during the jam, but that’s part of the fun: learning together and getting ideas to take home. Registration includes a T-shirt. There is a tech support desk, but we saved time by pre-downloading software onto our laptops at home.
As the event kicked off, the leaders made some opening remarks. Founder Debi Pfitzenmaier shared three things she hopes attendees take away from the code jam:
- Get excited about computer science.
- Walk away feeling confident: “I’ve got this!”
- See the connection between computer and jobs.
Susanna Clavello, Coordinator of Digital Learning at ESC Region 20, welcomed guests, volunteers, sponsors, families, and computer science learners.
The main event at the code jam was visiting the fifteen stations. A map guided us to the right stations and helped us locate the best ones for beginners.
Our first stop was Scratch, which F.T. and G.N. have encountered before, e.g., at the Science Mill. The Scratch programming environment is visual, with drag and drop elements and cute characters and animations. Kids can create accounts and share their projects. They found code samples and started experimenting. The learning will continue at home, now that both kids have accounts on Scratch.
We met up with other families we know who share our love for computer science. Here is a picture of me with my friend and fellow warrior-mom, Jessica Payan.
F.T. stayed at Scratch for a while, but G.N. moved on to the micro:bit station. A volunteer showed us how to attach the board to the USB port and upload our code.
G.N. got creative with telling the board what the buttons should do, and she created her own images on the LEDs. F.T. said he wants to be sure to try micro:bits next time.
Both kids moved on to the Finch Robot zone. The interface to direct the robots—which look like high-tech birds on wheels—is similar to Scratch, and F.T. and G.N. were both able to navigate the maze.
The virtual reality and augmented reality room was popular. We were impressed with the virtual business cards from USAA Labs.
Both kids tried on a prototype Microsoft Hololens and played augmented reality games.
The consensus favorite, and our final station, was Code.org‘s free courses at studio.code.org/courses. Since the jam, both kids have both logged in to do more games, which build keyboarding skills and introduce logic concepts.
Events like this run on volunteers, and Code Jam has an amazing group. They made the event accessible and inviting for newbies like us, but they also had the depth of knowledge to suggest tools to keep learning.
San Antonio Youth Code Jam also depends on its sponsors to keep down the cost of event registration. Besides the community-wide jam, San Antonio Youth Code Jam also offers sensory-friendly jams, professional development workshops, and pop-up events.
This was our family’s first visit to a San Antonio Youth Code Jam event, and it was even more fun than we expected. Activities like this will help lay the foundation for my kids to keep experimenting and learning about programming. My hope is that the time they spend playing will lead to mastery and perhaps to fulfilling careers in computer science.