De­cod­ing code

UTS stu­dent teaches new­com­ers pro­gram­ming

The Kids Post - - Disruptors - — Ju­dith Muster

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

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