technology education
6:30 am
Tue October 15, 2013

A Woman's Quest To Prove Coding Is More Than Nerdy

It’s a no-brainer that you have to be able to use a computer to get most jobs today. Public schools in Eugene encourage students to use technology as an educational tool. Kiki Prottsman is a local woman who hopes to inspire young people to become more than just users.

These middle schoolers are at math and computer science camp.

 “It's fun, but sometimes you miss a friends sleepover or a birthday party or something. But you make up to it. Like, your friends won't be there in the future but your education will be."

Neyu Marcus and Brennan Whip are sitting near the front of the class. They are quick to answer their teacher, Kiki Prottsman’s questions.

"Does anybody remember what 'algorithm' means?"

"a rhythm, kind of"

"You can get into a rhythm when you follow an algorithm"

"A series of steps you take to accomplish a task"

Prottsman runs Thinkersmith, a nonprofit aimed to expose young people, especially girls to computer science. She wears high-heeled sandals, her hair is dark magenta. Her t-shirt reads: "I've been thinking since before it was cool"

These students are eager to get to today's class. In front of them are safety pins, tin foil, index cards, plastic straws, and electric tea lights.

"We're going to start exploring the idea of playing with stuff nobody has taught us about yet. And that's where all of your power will come from."

The students figure out how to take apart the light. They learn it turns on when the wires touch to a battery. Then, Prottsman tells them to make something new with the supplies in front of them.

"Something cool to notice is that they all have something that works."

In five minutes, one boy has a light-up aluminum foil halo on his head. Another has a tiny flashlight.

Prottsman compares her programming curriculum to music lessons.

 “Parents will pay that, because their kids are passionate about music. I wish more people saw that computer science is a creative art.”

Google and local tech firms have funded Prottsman to take her curriculum to schools. In Eugene’s 4J School District, kids that aren’t exposed to Prottsman still use more technology than ever before. Kim Ketterer is the Instructional Technology Administrator.

 “We need them to learn to have a tool at their fingertips when they need it. Not Tuesday at 10 a.m. every week.”

Thanks to the May bond measure passed to help 4J schools, technology is being updated and students are using new tools like iPads.

Prottsman wants digital exposure to go even beyond using interactive textbooks on iPads, starting as early as kindergarten. She'll go to art, math, English - any class, and teach students how to apply computer science problem solving skills.

 “We go through step by step and teach them the range of emotions you go through when you’re learning something new. You’re going to feel frustration, and anger and self-consciousness. Everybody goes through that, it’s just some people stick with it until they feel like, “Oh! I did it! I’m amazing!”

Instead of being left unsatisfied, Prottsman says kids grow if they go back and try to re-do it until they are "amazing". That’s key to programming: being wrong, and doing it again.

Kiki is so insistent that technology is fun that she hosts coding birthday parties with themes like “Princess”

 “She gets to wear the pink, she gets to wear the crown if that’s what she’s interested in. But she also has the whole kingdom of thought and it’s under attack. You have to decode messages and you have to use these computer science skills in order to save your kingdom.”

Prottsman says kids need programming skills to be launched into a successful career – even if they don’t dream of being a computer scientist. She takes steps to ensure parents their child won't turn into a sedentary, mountain-dew chugging geek.

She reminds students to be aware of the environmental costs of technology, and that their new skills should be shared with others.

The youngsters in today's camp leave with their inventions, and are ready to come back for week 2, where they start playing with programming computer games like "Light-Bot".

For now, public schools require that technology is integrated across subjects. But, these kids seem to agree with Kiki that learning what's behind their iPad is pretty cool too.