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Cracking the code: Hands-on experience helps students prepare for future careers

A goal of The Coder School is to engage females in the computer science field.

Earlier this year, the New York Times published an article declaring that whether you want to be an empowered worker or an empowered citizen you need to know two codes. The first is the U.S. Constitution. The second is computer coding.

Computer coding has come a long way since IBM made it commercially available in 1954. Simply put, it is the process of telling a computer how to behave. Every line of code is a command written in programming language.

Today, coding classes and coding schools are gaining increasing popularity across the globe and in our own backyards.

Nearly a year ago, Charu Katyal and Kathy Kilo Peterson opened The Coder School in Town & Country. Though there are 28 nationwide, the Town & Country franchise is the first in Missouri.

“It is extremely important to change the mindset that coding is for boys,” general manager and co-owner Katyal said.

According to data released in May by the National Center for Women and Information Technology, 18% of all computer and information science degrees are earned by women, down from 37% in 1985.

While the number of females across medicine, business and law fields has risen significantly, the percentage of women who receive CS degrees is the smallest across all STEM fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This is despite the fact that 57% of undergraduate degrees are earned by women.

Following the national average, The Coder School typically has about 80% male enrollment, with the boys making video games and the girls creating online stories during class.

“There is no escaping it. You must embrace technology if you want a career in the future,” Katyal said. “No matter what you choose as a career in life, there are applications of coding in every arena.”

That’s a sentiment shared by Ron and Jennifer Heinz and Erin and Elias Fradelos; the couples own franchise locations of Code Ninjas with much the same goals as Katyal and Kilo.

The Fradeloses opened their Code Ninjas franchise this past spring in Wildwood. Across the Missouri River in St. Charles County, the Heinzes operate a Code Ninjas franchise in O’Fallon.

Heinz has been interested in computer coding since the mid-90s. It’s a passion that has never dwindled. For years, he worked as a software design manager but his goal was to open a school that would teach the basics of computer programming in a fun way.

“It’s hard to get an interest in it if it’s not fun,” he said. Heinz appreciates the way coding segues into academic applications outside of computer science.

“In algebra and geometry, there are x and y coordinates and inputting variables, graphics uses visual art, and by testing hypotheses through trial and error, science applications are used,” he explained.

While there is no age too young to start, the recommended age to introduce coding is around 7. By that age, most kids have a firm grasp of reading and longer attention spans. The internet offers plenty of free online resources to introduce coding, such as Codecademy and Khan Academy but learning in a class of peers offers camaraderie as well as competency.

“Being in a learning center, there is support and you are surrounded by other like-minded kids ready to help build on that competency,” Heinz said.

Soft skills, such as relating to other people, also are developed, Katyal said. Face-to-face interaction “builds a social platform for the geeky, nerdy kids,” she said. That platform also can serve to build future computer instructors.

In fact, with coding skills under their control, tech-savvy kids may be able to write their futures.

“There’s nothing quite like the smile of a child as they look at a blank white screen with the ability to create anything they desire,” Heinz said.

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