Just this month, Charity Digital announced a new partnership with charitable initiative Meet and Code providing grants for youth-based charities to produce their own event or activity day inspiring young people to get into programming. With funding applications now open, we wanted to get a flavour of some of the coding clubs out there already being run by youth organisations, with some tips and inspiration for those thinking of kicking off their own. We spoke to Christina Watson, Head of Programmes at UK Youth, about the organisation’s great success in delivering the Generation Code programme and what she’s learnt about running coding events for young people.
Charity Digital News: So what is Generation Code?
Christina Watson: Generation Code is a programme run by UK Youth in partnership with Microsoft, which we’ve been running for about six years now. For the first four years we worked principally on digital skills, and two years ago we then moved into the computer science and coding space. Since the beginning we’ve had just over 14,000 young people go through the programme, and since changing to our ’digital champion’ model we’ve seen about 5,500. We have quite high reach due to the number of youth organisations we work with across the UK and Northern Ireland. We have built an online platform with a suite of resources that we’ve collated from other places and a ’curriculum’ that features all the Generation Code activities for participants to explore or download.
CDN: Who runs the sessions?
CW: Code Champions are between 16-25, sometimes they are youth workers who are volunteering and we want to train them in digital-specific stuff, but in other instances we’ve had apprentices or junior members of staff at tech companies in the local area come in and volunteer. We’ve found this is a really sustainable way of the youth organisations delivering projects because they can bring expertise in and don’t have to find it themselves. Sometimes they do this in their youth clubs or they go out and do outreach in the community and partner with schools, using school space or libraries.
CDN: What age range are you targeting?
CW: The young people range from 11-19, but we find the majority of participants are in the 13-16 age range. This is because they’re in the age group before computer science came into the curriculum at school, so there’s a particular need there, they will be competing for jobs with people a couple of years younger than them who have that advantage. But all ages might want to engage with coding in a different way, even if it’s not the first time for them. Frontline, informal youth services like youth clubs are a different, unique environment - it’s about the opportunity to be exposed to digital skills in many parts of their life, not just through school or a GCSE in IT.
CDN: Why is coding such an important skill for young people to have?
CW: We’re typically working with young people who may be less likely to engage with this type of activity, may be more disadvantaged in life or aren’t in formal education. Our programme is not about getting people to a particular level of achievement, but about helping young people make the connection that the world is a digital place and whatever path they take in life they are going to need a level of digital skills. We are aiming to spark that interest and get people who never considered computer science to have a go. We want to change the perception that this is something somebody else does, a room full of geeks somehere - it’s something anyone can do. Everything they consume, every app and website they use, somebody has built that. Just how it’s important for people to have a basic understanding of chemistry, physics and biology - the way the world around us works - the world is also a digital place now, and there is a need for young people to know at least a little bit about how it works.
CDN: For organisations looking to run their own ’meet and code’ events, what should they think about first?
CW: The first thing to look at it is what resources and tech they have. Don’t be put off by a lack of your own technology as a limiting factor - you can think creatively about where devices might come from, use a library space or team up with a local school. Also, don’t worry if you don’t know how to code yourselves. You don’t really need more than the basics to run the sort of stuff we’re talking about. It’s about saying, if I don’t feel confident is there someone in my community who can? Try to find local technical support - there are millions of local tech businesses. They might want to come and volunteer or bring in laptops, there might be a local teacher or another STEM ambassador keen to come in. Or look to your more-tech savvy young people and youth workers - it’s all about knowing what different people can bring to the table. There’s also a ton of fantastic resources out there, like Microsoft’s Make Code website with lots of fun tutorials, and the BBC Micro:bit Foundation. They donated 5,000 micro:bit mini computers to us for the programme, but they’re really inexpensive to buy - about £12 each. They come with lots of online instructions, guides and downloadable scripts, and you don’t have to start coding straight away, you can start with blockwork where you just drag and drop the bits they they snap together so it teaches the basic principles.
CDN: What’s the key to getting young people into coding?
CW: For a lot of young people coding is challenging because they see the code but don’t necessarily see what it does. With something like the Micro:bit it’s really tangible - you put something in and then it does something. It’s also about coming up with a challenge and a reason to code- not just coding for coding’s sake. You give them a real life tangible thing and then use tech to solve it. Look at the clubs you’re already running and yourself how you can bring tech into it, whether it’s craft, music, citizenship, anything. You can make it really fun, competitive, and everyone including the staff learns something in a fun environment and they have a go together. Particularly when you’re looking at engaging girls, you might want to bring coding into things they’re already making and designing, get them to do the making first, for instance designing a milk carton robot, then once they’re hooked get them to code the Micro:bit and make it move and start to do things. We recently had a session using music, where the young people were coding and making digital sounds, DJing. It was simple, accessible and really energising - they were loving it, comparing each other’s beats and compositions, and it’s something you can do really quickly, you put some code in and a sound comes out. So it’s about asking - how can I bring technology into what we’re already doing and enhance that? That’s the better route in.