Parkman Coders: Teaching Digital Natives at Detroit Public Library

 |   Qumisha Goss, librarian, Detroit Public Library

At the Detroit Public Library, we have many technical programs to serve adults and provider job training. Children can be overlooked as “digital natives,” a term used to describe those who have grown up with technology. Working at the Parkman Branch and observing children interacting with technology, I discovered that kids may be at ease using technology for entertainment and social networking, but often struggle to use technology productively. For instance, our students can figure out how to get into online games without buying the actual game, but the same children struggle to double space a paper or create a graph for their science fair project.  To channel their enthusiasm for technology into a more productive skillset, I developed the Parkman Coders program.

Parkman Coders focuses on teaching computational thinking and introducing kids to coding using Python. It is an attempt to create a new paradigm for our young patrons; we want them to see technology as a tool, not just as a distraction. To do this, we teach project-based programming lessons with a focus on physical computing. We often use Raspberry Pis (small, single board computers) and Micro:Bit in our lessons. These are both affordable and forgiving for new programmers. Since the program started three years ago, we have run several projects including coding with Minecraft, building robot cars, creating art and music on Micro:Bits, and a motion-sensing photo booth.  Allowing kids to code things that they are interested in helps increase their interest in computer science and provides a new perspective on the technology they use regularly for entertainment.

In Parkman Coders, young library patrons learn to program in Python, a high-level programming language for general-purpose programming. They are exposed to programming while gaining valuable skills to propel them into computer science jobs or support their goals in another field where they can use programming as a tool to enhance their work or hobbies.

This year, the Microsoft Detroit Cities Team came on board to support Parkman Coders and Detroit Public Library Kids in a project called Code Grow — Enriching Summer Experiences with Agriculture and Tech. Detroit Public Library and Parkman Coders are committed to helping kids learn how to code and introducing them to computational thinking, but we also know that there is a great big world just on the other side of our screens. With the intent to expose our young library patrons to new, creative learning experiences, we are exploring gardening, food nutrition and physical computing.

“…But Ms. Q, you can’t grow a pizza!”  

This summer, Parkman Coders is going outside.  We’re challenging our kids to think deeply about their world by having them plant a pizza- and salad-themed garden. They will also use technology and their new programming skills to monitor their garden beds. Working in partnership with Michigan 4-H Foundation and the support of Microsoft, our students will create a code-supported growing experience. First, students will be introduced to the basics of gardening and Raspberry Pi. They then will work in groups to plant a small garden bed. Each student will use a block editor to program a Micro:Bit to sense moisture in the soil as they learn to take care of their garden beds.  In addition, each student will use Python to program a Raspberry Pi to create a timelapse camera that captures the growing process over time. During this program, we want to ensure that our students learn what plants need and how they support people and animals, as well as learning how to write programs to read data from digital and analogue inputs and to control digital and analogue outputs.

Our learning experience this summer will come to an end with a few rounds of Coders Jeopardy to assess how much we’ve learned, game show style. Additionally, students will get to harvest their garden beds and have a celebratory pizza and salad party with their own crops and video presentations of their garden time lapse videos. We can’t wait to revel in their success!

Qumisha Goss, or Ms. Q as you may call her, is a librarian at the Detroit Public Library specializing in Technology and Library Instruction. With undergraduate degrees in History and Classical Studies, Q is a self-taught Pythonista and certified raspberry pi educator. Q currently runs the Parkman Coders program at the Parkman Branch of the Detroit Public Library.