Coding in libraries is not just for experts

This post was written by Crystle Martin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, University of California, Irvine and member of OITP’s Libraries Ready to Code project Advisory Committee. This is one of several blog posts coming this week in recognition of Computer Science Education Week and the work libraries are engaged in providing coding opportunities for youth. Follow along with #ReadytoCode @youthandtech. Check out #CSforAll too!

Diversity issues persist in the field of computer science. Early exposure of youth to computer science ideas can lead to envisioned futures in technology. Research has shown that youth as young as elementary age begin to form career plans. If youth do not receive exposure to activities like coding and computer science, then they are less likely to envision computer science as a career. This type of exposure is less available for youth who are from lower-quintile income households, which are continually, and by a growing margin, outspent by upper-quintile income households. This creates a residual equity gap for computer science as well as other fields. However, libraries are well positioned to help with this issue of exposure to coding through programs and workshops.

children around a teacher and computer in library

Los Angeles Public Library Coder Time

Creating programs and workshops within libraries may seem daunting with technology constraints and the even bigger issue of lack of staff expertise, but both of these issues can be easily gotten around. There are many coding activities which have minimal technology requirements, like free online coding programs such as Scratch and Spark. However, the bigger challenge may seem to be filling gaps in expertise among the staff. But it is not necessary for library staff to be experts in coding to run coding programs. Instead, what is necessary is for librarians to be willing to learn alongside the youth they teach and to be willing to try new things (and sometimes fail).

There are several avenues through which novice librarian coders can implement coding programs and workshops in their libraries. One way would be to invite older teens with the skill or interest to facilitate or help facilitate the workshops and programs. This allows the librarian to provide support in an area they may not feel they have the expertise in and also creates opportunities for youth to develop leadership skills and expand their own coding knowledge through teaching. A second approach is to use existing programs like those offered by the Coding for All project, a project undertaken by the Digital Media and Learning Hub at the University of California, Irvine; the Lifelong Kindergarten group at MIT; and the Berkman Center at Harvard University, and funded by the National Science Foundation. This project created workshops designed to be implemented by librarians with little to no coding experience. A third option is to frame the programs as co-learning experiences between the youth and the librarian. How can a librarian co-learn during a program? By using skills they use in all parts of their practice. Instead of having the answers, the librarian can say to a youth, “I don’t know the answer but we can figure it out together.” Because coding is about computational thinking, about iteration and problem solving, co-learning is an effective method of instruction.

In order for exposure to coding to become a long-term interest and then a career path, many different opportunities and components need to fall in place. However, libraries and library staff can create the initial stepping stone opportunities for youth to gain basic exposure and a basic interest in coding. From there, with support and mentorship from librarians and library staff, youth have the opportunity to develop long-term engagement and possibly envision a future career in computer science.

For more on the impacts and benefits early exposure to CS, see Generation STEM: What Girls Say about Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. For more information about early career path exploration, see The Development of Elementary-Aged Children’s Career Aspirations and Expectations.

About Marijke Visser

As associate director and senior policy advocate, Marijke leads and coordinates all of ALA’s work on E-rate. In addition, Marijke supports the Program on Networks focusing on broadband adoption issues for diverse populations. Marijke also serves as Program Director for OITP’s emerging portfolio on children, youth, and technology.