Sonoma County Library program teaches kids to code

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‘We’re going to be learning some challenging stuff today,” said Rebecca Forth, as she introduced a dozen middle-schoolers to her computer coding boot camp at Healdsburg Regional Library on Saturday morning. “It’s kind of like learning a new language.”

The program, called Coding Camp for Kids, teaches young people computer programming skills by writing and modifying code in Java, the language used to build “Minecraft,” a popular video game that allows players to build, explore and interact in a three-dimensional world.

Forth, a Santa Rosa mother of two who launched the program in Sonoma County under a state library and technology grant, said demand for space in the program has skyrocketed since she started teaching the course a year and a half ago.

“I’m turning away three times as many kids as I can accommodate,” Forth said. “We’re seeing such high demand because there’s so much interest in the fields of science and technology.”

Forth said the seed for the idea of the program was planted when her son, at 10 years old, was visiting a friend’s house in Healdsburg. The friend’s dad, who has Web development experience, taught the two kids how to write code in Java. She noticed the passion her son showed in learning the new skills, and started doing research about how to increase learning activities for him.

“It made me realize the huge disconnect between what is being taught in our public schools, and what skills are needed to fill the demand for technology and industry jobs in our county.”

Forth won a one-year, $5,000 state grant in September 2013, then built the curriculum and hired staff for the program. The three, weeklong classes she and a small staff designed were full, with capacity for 12 kids per class. When program funding dried up last year, Forth asked library fundraising groups to help pitch in so she could keep the program going.

This year, she has received temporary funding to hold 11 one-day coding camps scattered at different libraries throughout the county. She hired three staff members — who are studying computer programming at Santa Rosa Junior College — to assist the sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders. Eventually, Forth said she hopes to expand.

Lilly Widick, a 12-year-old who attends J.X. Wilson School in Santa Rosa, was the only girl to attend Saturday’s coding camp. She said she wanted to come because she loves playing “Minecraft” and she has an idea for a modification she wants to build for the game.

“I’ve wanted to make my own mod for a while,” she said. “I want to make one with cats and make some kind of village.”

Widick’s idea is inspired by “Warriors,” series of juvenile fantasy books about the adventures of four clans of wild cats.

Widick’s mom, Barbara Widick-Bueschel, jumped at the opportunity for her daughter to sign up for the class.

“She loves ‘Minecraft,’ and she’s a little shy, so I thought this would be good for her,” she said.

Weldon Deatherage, who goes to Lawrence E. Jones Middle School in Rohnert Park, said he, too, wants to build his own modification for the game using his new coding skills.

“I’m really interested in making ‘Minecraft’ mods,” he said. “I’ve never done it before.”

Children interested in signing up for the classes can visit sonomalibrary.org/node/19082.

You can reach Staff Writer Angela Hart at 526-8503 or angela.hart@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @ahartreports.

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