UTS student teaches newcomers programming
Even though he has yet to take a coding class himself, Leo Tenenbaum spent three weeks this summer sharing his computer programming expertise with kids who are immigrants and refugees to Canada. Tenenbaum is a selftaught coder: the University of Toronto Schools (UTS) student started learning computer programming through his own Internet explorations when he was only seven, half his lifetime ago. And the coding camp was his idea.
“I was pretty young when I started coding,” says Tenenbaum. “I wanted to make games. One of the games I’ve programmed is pong. It’s not too hard to learn how to program pretty simple games like that.”
Not all kids (nor adults) would agree there. Tenenbaum clearly has a natural aptitude for coding. On his homepage, his programming experiments are divided into subcategories including Android Apps and Mathematical Demonstrations.
Tenenbaum also shared his new passion with his family. He has coded with his parents, both of whom are University of Toronto philosophy professors, and with his older brother, who is now studying math at university.
Since ideas are currency in this family, it’s no surprise that the newcomer coding camp was the youngest Tenenbaum’s own concept — with some parental inspiration. In December 2015, his mom and dad started a private sponsorship group to welcome Syrian refugee families to Toronto. They have since sponsored three families, the most recent of which just arrived in August.
“I think I was more aware of all the refugees that are coming to Toronto,” Tenebaum explains. “I just thought I knew a lot of programming and it would be nice to use those skills because it’s so useful. It also was just fun for the kids if they’re interested in learning how computers work.”
With the encouragement of his parents, Tenenbaum asked UTS if it might host the camp and enlisted his brother to help him teach. Thanks to the connections the family had to refugee and immigrant communities, it was easy to recruit pupils. And then they were up and running: for a week, the Tenenbaum brothers taught coding to five participants aged eight to 12, mostly from Syria and Egypt.
“We taught a bit of scratch, which is pretty simple block programming for kids, and also python, which is more of a real programming language,” says Tenenbaum. “We did stuff like making a tag game on the computer and making a simple website.”
It was a success, evidenced by this summer’s ambitious reboot. Tenenbaum scaled up, recruiting 15 UTS student volunteers to help him teach 24 newcomers over a period of three weeks from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. Learners were from numerous different countries of origin, including Syria, El Salvador, Turkey, Armenia and Nigeria.
“It was a bit scary to expand from one week to three, but in the end they learned quite a bit and they seemed pretty interested,” Tenenbaum says. “Most of them knew English a bit. They’d all been in Canada for at least a year.”
With Google translate to smooth over any miscommunication and a team of UTS programmers well-versed in the language of coding, Tenenbaum says the fact that his students were new to Canada made very little difference at the camp.
“Children adapt quickly and they were very much like other Canadian children. I think it’s just nice to see the kids learning.”
Although his students leave camp with a whole new skill set, Tenenbaum has one takeaway that he’ll keep in mind as he plans next summer’s program:
“Keeping the children focused is not that easy! You really need to think about how you’ll keep things fun and interesting for them.”
Tenenbaum learned to program at home