Emily Lynch projected her creation onto the monitor at the end of the conference table.
Behind her Chromebook, she clicks through the early stages of the game she is working on. The rest of the class prepares to provide their thoughts as they watch Emily’s avatar ride a rainbow across a park bench on the TV screen. Once the presentation is completed, the girls fill out a questionnaire describing what they liked and disliked about Emily’s idea as well as provide some ideas for further development.
Collaboration and idea-sharing between the students are essential parts of the 8-week course being taught by Marti Mauntel, a retired Northeast Dubois Middle School science teacher, and Fred Routsen, Jasper High School engineering teacher, at Current Blend in Huntingburg. Both are volunteering their time and training for the success of the academy in addition to the other members of the volunteer group that formed to make the academy happen.
It’s only the second day of school for the inaugural class of girls in Dubois County’s first computer programming academy and Emily courageously stepped forward to be critiqued by the six other girls in attendance.
The new academy began to come together last April, when Marti reached out to Brenda Stallings, CEO of Matrix and President of the Current Blend board, to discuss creating the course. At the time, they were seeking a grant to cover the cost and had thought the cowork space on 4th Street would be a great place to host classes.
Unfortunately, the grant fell through but after a year of planning and with the help of several volunteers as well as a donation of equipment from Matrix Integration and transportation through the City of Huntingburg, the first class met February 15. Dubbed Blended Coders, the first academy was only offered to middle school girls in Southwest Dubois County School Corporation; eight signed up.
“We decided on girls because sometime in middle school, they decide they can’t do engineering or they can’t do coding,” Marti said. “We wanted to make them feel that they can because this is the age that they begin to look towards more traditional female jobs. Companies and colleges are begging for female engineers and coders.”
In planning for the first academy, the group determined that it would be difficult to offer it in a single location for students across the county. With an offer from Mayor Denny Spinner to provide the city’s transit van to pick up students right after school and a ready-made meeting area on 4th Street, the group decided to start in the southwest portion of the county with plans to expand to other locations as the idea gains traction.
Hopefully, the academy will continue to be free which is an important component of the vision according to Judy Bueckert, Director of the Southern Indiana Education Center. “It is provides some equity,” she explained about how lower income students lacking internet access in their homes will be able to explore programming and collaboration in a supportive atmosphere like Current Blend.
For 13-year-old Olivia Lopez, a Southridge seventh grader, having access to the equipment, the internet and a volunteer teacher is important. She doesn’t have internet access at her home. Through Blended Coders, she’s able to extend her interests in Science Technology Engineering and Math (STEM) activities even further than taking part in the extracurricular robotics team at school.
With the enthusiasm and focus this first group of girls has, it is likely a follow-up course will be created to continue to build these skills that are becoming necessary for a modern workforce.
“If you get people excited, you don’t want to just drop the ball and not have them continue learning,” Marti said. “We want it to spread and spread and spread.”
After this first class finishes, the next academy will be opened up to boys as well. Although they started with middle schoolers this time, Marti thinks they could go even younger. “I have had some fourth graders that have learned programming for our Nao robots at VU,” she said. “It think it is important to introduce this to them when they are young so that it just becomes second-nature to them.”
Nau robots can be programmed to complete certain tasks, create a personality and even sing and dance through its many articulating parts.
In the future, the group envisions sessions being offered in each of the school corporations. By using the library or other meeting spaces in those corporations’ footprints, it will be easier to transport the children to the academy allowing more to attend.
For now, though, these students are tasked with creating one of three projects over the next six weeks; an application, a game or a story-telling program.
Who knows, one of them may create the county’s first large-scale technological start-up.