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Surviving week one of code camp

Topics/tags: Code camps, rambly

For reasons I’ll describe in a separate musing, I’ve been spending the last few summers working with groups of Grinnell students [1] to design and run code camps for middle-school and late-elementary students. While I had good reasons to undertake this endeavor, running code camps and studying the efficacy of code camp curricula are neither my passion nor my expertise [2].

Last week, we ran the first of three summer camps for 2018. The first camp targeted students going into 4th and 5th grades and focused on what we call The Craft of Code. Our campers wrote programs that led to some tangible products (embroidered cloth, 3D-printed objects) as well as programs that made artworks. The students wrote programs in TurtleStitch [3], BeetleBlocks, Scratch, and, in a few cases, the BBC micro:bit block language.

Running a camp for about thirty nine- and ten-year-olds is a lot of work. Our days started before 8:00 a.m. for setup and ended after 6:00 p.m. after cleanup, debriefing, and some additional preparation for the next day [4]. And the time with the kids is hard; not only are we helping them learn potentially difficult concepts, we’re also managing a lot of social issues [5]. It didn’t help that we had the students do everything in pairs. Pair programming brought a lot of benefits, but it also increased the opportunities for difficult camper interactions.

As I said, designing curricula for this age group is not within my area of expertise. To make things even more difficult, I generally let the Grinnell students design and run the curriculum, but I provide feedback. So both the Grinnell students and I feel some frustration when we see a lesson plan go less well than we’d like, or realize only after the fact that there might be a better way to do things. We have pages and pages of post-camp notes on how we might do things differently (and, we hope, better) in future camps.

At times, I ask myself why I chose to run these camps [6]. It’s hard. It doesn’t advance my career. I find it less fun than, say, writing software that makes art. And, since I agreed to treat this as a research project and want to have my students have the experience of presenting research, we also need to study the students and the effectiveness of the curricula [7]. Unfortunately, this year we realized that repeating a camp complicates the data analysis. In particular, about 1/3 of the campers had attended the same camp last year. If our goal is to build interest and self-efficacy, won’t the changes in those campers be different than those who are attending for the first time? We’re already dealing with relatively small numbers. These issues. will make the numbers even smaller. Oh well, that’s part of the joy of research.

In spite of the effort and the complications, it’s worth it. We see the campers grow over the week. The kids generally have fun and develop skills. And there are so many ways in which we see ourselves making a difference, from the kids who ask What do I need to do in school so that I can go to Grinnell?, to the parents who tell us that they have never before seen their child willing to stand in front of a room and present, to the pride we see in campers who have chosen and achieved a complex project. And we get to meet a lot of really awesome kids.

Although we aren’t meeting some of our target diversity goals [8], we are clearly bringing in a large number of girls (50% of our camp, if I count correctly) as well as students from a variety of communities (not just Grinnell) and from a range of socio-economic backgrounds [9]. It will take a decade or so to tell if we’ve made a long-term difference to these students. But I can hope.

It’s also worth it for the effect on the Grinnell students. Many sign up to work on the project because they want to provide opportunities that they didn’t have at that age. That is, they love CS and they want to share their passion. And, while they also get frustrated, they gain so much. I know that they all experienced the joy of seeing a light go on when a camper learns something new. They also get the experience of learning how hard it is to develop curriculum.

With all those positives, why do I say surviving? Because the camps are really a lot of work. And they require a lot of adaptation. Finally, we always seem to have a counselor who manages to catch something from the kids. This year, I was that counselor. I ended up spending all of Saturday in bed and I’m still not completely better. Oh well, I guess it goes with the territory.

We have slightly less than two weeks to prepare for the second camp on Data Science for Social Good and then only one week to prepare for the third camp on Language and Code [10]. It should be a great adventure!


[1] Also community college students and even some local high school students.

[2] Designing curriculum in CS is one of my areas of expertise. But curricula for college-age students are different than curricula for 4th-grade through 8th-grade students. Course curricula are also different than camp curricula.

[3] If you’re reading this message in summer 2018, you might consider helping fund the TurtleStitch Kickstarter.

[4] Some of the college students worked into the evening printing out camper projects or refining their lessons for the next day.

[5] As I say regularly, I have a lot of respect for elementary school teachers (and middle-school teachers and high-school teachers).

[6] As I said, I’ll write about the genesis of the code camps in a separate musing.

[7] Our main consideration is the effect of the camps on students’ sense of self-efficacy in computing, interesting in computing, and breadth of understanding of who does computing.

[8] In a subsequent musing, I’ll report on those goals, the reasons we aren’t meeting them, and the reasons we don’t expect to meet them.

[9] Some of my research students would like us to find ways to focus almost exclusively on low-SES students. That’s an issue we need to discuss more. There are many kinds of diversity we want to support and a number of other complicating factors.

[10] We will certainly spend some of the next two weeks working on the curriculum for the third camp. The second camp is just our current focus.


Version 1.0 of 2018-06-26.