Coding with Creativity: A Coaches Perspective

By: Sunnie Dawn Baker

A year ago, I had never heard of the Youth Coding League, and I certainly knew very little about coding, programming, or computer science. If someone had told me that I would eventually coach a team of talented fifth and sixth-grade coders, teaching them how to program in Scratch, I would have thought they were joking. Sometimes the paths we take in life are unexpected; however, the journey that has led to the remarkable success of the Conduit Coders has been exciting, inspiring, and fulfilling.

I first learned about the Youth Coding League while at the Rural Innovation Network Annual Summit in Traverse City, Michigan. Stacy Lane, director of the Youth Coding League, presented on how programs like this can help support and build a tech community. It isn’t enough to get students interested in coding when they are in high school; it is necessary to develop and nurture that interest from a young age. I was instantly interested in this idea and set up a meeting with Lane as soon as I returned home.

While most Youth Coding League teams are based out of schools, there was a precedent for other entities, like libraries or other organizations, to host the teams. We quickly decided that, especially considering the limitations most schools face regarding both budget and capacity, the Ada Jobs Foundation would give the program a chance and host our own team as a pilot program. Since it was my idea, I volunteered to coach. In preparation for the Fall 2023 season, I took an online class through Harvard X, “Introduction to Scratch Programming,” so I would be able to help the coders with their projects and challenges. We did not know, at the time, if there would be any interest in the program or if our efforts would be successful. But we did see this as a possible opportunity to introduce young people to computer science and begin to build a future tech worker pipeline. And so, the Conduit Coders were officially established.

One of the benefits of hosting the team through the Ada Jobs Foundation is that it is not tied to a particular school district. This opens the opportunity to all fifth and sixth grade students in Pontotoc County. In the Fall 2023 season, we had ten coders, representing two school districts, Ada and Latta. In the Spring 2024 season, we had twelve coders, representing a total of four school districts: Ada, Latta, Byng, and Roff. Much like the approach Pontotoc Technology Center takes, this enables people from different schools to come together, make new friends, and step out of communities that can be siloed and insular in nature. In the future, we hope to recruit from other schools as well as the homeschooling community.

During the regular season, the coders meet at the Ada Jobs Foundation offices for two hours a week where they learn about coding and further hone their skills as they work through eight different “sprints.” Each sprint is a project designed to teach them coding skills and each lesson builds on the previous. The projects are scored according to a specific rubric: eight categories, each worth ten points, considering everything from reliability to creativity. In the first season, the theme was “Storytelling;” in the second it was “Fashion and Design.” At the end of the season, each team is ranked according to the average of the individual scores. In addition to this, the individual coders are ranked and those in the top ten nationwide receive prizes. In the Fall 2023 season, the Conduit Coders were ranked 7th in the nation, with two coders in the top ten: Eli Priddle in first place and Sophia Baker in fourth. However, in the Spring 2024 season, the team jumped to 2nd place and had three coders in the top ten: Sophia Baker in first, Eli Priddle in fifth, and Jameson Thompson in sixth. In addition to this, every single coder finished in the top 100 and, also, every single coder achieved at least one perfect score. The progress from one season to the next was nothing short of remarkable.

After completing the regular season, the postseason begins. Coders are challenged to use all of their skills to create a project entirely from scratch that is focused on a single prompt. The overall team is broken up into smaller teams of 2-3 people. For Fall 2023, the prompt was, “Create a project that tells a story of how you could use computer science and coding to make your town a better place or solve a problem you’ve noticed in your town.” Spring 2024 was, “Apply what you’ve learned this season to craft a project showcasing how computer science and coding could transform fashion and design in the future.” The coders needed to use their creativity and problem-solving skills to think entrepreneurially as they brainstormed products and services to improve their communities or transform fashion in the future.

For postseason, there are two categories: Technical Merit, which is judged by professional computer programmers and developers, and Community Favorite, which is a public vote. Each team can advance only one project in each category during the preliminary rounds. After that, the projects proceed to the semifinals and then, hopefully, the finals. In Fall 2023, the team “Addicted to Ducks,” consisting of Sophia Baker, Serenity Kirk, and Aurora Rhodes, reached the finals in Community Favorite. The “Unnormal Cow Dudes,” composed of Eli Priddle and Caisen Herrera, not only reached the finals but also secured fourth place in Technical Merit. In Spring 2024, team “Radioactive Bacon,” with coders Eli Priddle and Sophia Baker, reached the finals in both Technical Merit and Community Favorite At the end of the postseason, they secured third place in Technical Merit and fourth place in Community Favorite.

I am amazingly proud with the Conduit Coders. Within less than a year, these talented young fifth and sixth graders have helped build a program that has demonstrated tremendous success. They have risen to the challenge of coding with creativity, learning new skills while also stretching the bounds of what they thought was possible. After the success of our 2023-2024 season, I can’t wait to see what comes next, both for this program and also for the futures of these talented young coders!

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