Instead of soccer camp, Josette Martinez enrolled her son in a very different daytime activity this summer. Daniel plays soccer throughout the year, and Martinez saw summer as a chance to hone his skills on a new field — a virtual one.
“Everything is computers now,” she said. “We wanted something more educational.”
So like an increasing number of kids across South Florida, Daniel spent some of his summer days in an air-conditioned classroom, learning the first steps of something many people find daunting — crafting computer code. His immersion started simply. He played Minecraft, a video game where users construct a world with 3-D blocks, and then he learned to create changes in that virtual world to suit his liking.
The importance of knowing how to code is no longer some secret shared among techies in Silicon Valley. Last year, President Barack Obama called on kids to start coding, and some celebrities you wouldn’t necessarily identify as geek types — like Shakira and Ashton Kutcher — spoke out about how all students need to develop the skill. In South Florida this summer, educators and entrepreneurs set up shop in classrooms and day care centers to host coding camps for kids of all ages and grades. While some were low cost or supported by grants, other ran as as much as $2,000 for two weeks.
Most classes seemed to fill up quickly, despite the fact that a lot of parents don’t even know what they’re signing their kids up to do.
“It’s overwhelming for parents,” said Lyel Resner, director of K-12 at the Flatiron School, a premiere coding academy based in New York City, which teamed up with Palmer Trinity School in Palmetto Bay to offer a pre-college academy for high school students to learn to code.
“At once, there’s not enough resources and also little guidance,” he said.
In its simplest form, coding is the language that tells computers what to do, but it’s not a language anyone can actually speak. It’s a hodgepodge of symbols, numbers and letters that to the untrained eye, look much more like the aftermath of a cat running across a keyboard rather than a set of instructions.
Coders say the best way to learn it is to use it, screw it up and try, try, try again. Such is the philosophy at most coding camps. At CodeKids and the Flatiron course, instructors spent only a few minutes in front of the class before they started walking around, working with students to troubleshoot on individual laptops.
The high school students at the pre-college academy learned the programming language called “Ruby,” a sample of which may look something like this: def initialize @field_pattern = /^.+?[^:/s]:
Meanwhile, tween girls at CodeElla, a coding camp in Little Havana, learned “Python,” which looks more like this: label=symbol.sym.name.get(int(ast(0}, ast)
Knowing the languages — what noncoders might chalk up to being pixie dust inside the machine — is increasingly important as computers run more of our lives. Websites, parking meters, elevators and, of course, your smartphone are all run by code. It’s used when you punch the letter “H” to type hello, hit “Control-P” to print a PDF or opt for a side of fries when you order from GrubHub.
Hadi Partovi, the founder of Code.org, said coding is actually a small part of the puzzle. He compared it to grammar, while computer science is the whole of English literature.
“Coding itself is a tool, and I think you need a broader education to see what you want to do with that tool,” Partovi said.
Daniel Martinez’s first week at the CodeKids camp in Doral didn’t result in him creating the next Instagram, but it did introduce him to the concepts of computing and a vocabulary to build upon. By starting with the modifications to Minecraft, called “mods,” the kids later developed ideas for a fashion app and envisioned their own tech startup, with guidance from two developers and one public school teacher.
“What we’re teaching here is the fundamentals of coding and computing and how they stack together,” said Richard Chimelis, the camp’s co-founder.
Daphne Cerrata, an 11-year-old camper at CODeLLA, spent the first few days of camp tapping on her tablet to turn mathematical patterns into pink and purple kaleidoscope shapes in a program called Xaos. Whereas most coding camps can run parents upwards of $800 a week, CODeLLA — located at Centro Mater Child Care Center in Little Havana — is completely grant-funded and quite selective: All campers must live below the federal poverty line, be 9 to 12-years old and be Latina.
Most of the girls in CODeLLA don’t have internet at home, said Centro Mater board member Sophia Powell, and they aren’t smartphone-savvy when they arrive. But that changes quickly.
"It's kind of like taking a kid who has never eaten dessert before and taking her to a chocolate factory," said Aurora Cosio, 14, a student founder of the camp. At CODeLLA’s culmination, the 22 girls will have a competition, pitching their tech inventions focused on wellness and wearable technology.
Python, HTML and CSS are some of the program languages Daphne learned at CODeLLA and the fifth grader hopes to apply them to her business ventures down the road.
“I’m so young that once I grow up, tech will be advancing, and I will know what to do in the future,” she said. Daphne wants start a veterinary business that will connect sick animals with the medicine they need.