Samaira isn't your normal techie. She doesn't work at Orbitz or Google (yet); she hasn't taken hours upon hours of classes on how to write code, repair a computer, or harness her patience when advising customers over the phone on how to operate their brand-new device.
But ask Samaira, who is just wrapping up third grade, what she really likes about coding, and you hear the words of a future techie who knows how to pique interest in even the most untrained neophyte.
"The one thing I really like [about coding] is the computer is interactive with us, too," says 8-year-old Samaira, founder of the board game and website Coderbunnyz.
Samaira has been working with coding for at least a year, and is now learning how to write Java. It's an interest that she owes largely to her engineer father, graphics-designer mother and unsuspecting 4-year-old brother, who she gave crash courses in coding after she caught the "programming bug" at age 7.
"The thing I actually like about coding is when you type it out, the computer actually is doing stuff. So the computer is smart, but at the same time, it’s not smart," she summarized, using the word "book" to prove her point. "If you spell B-U instead of B-O, it’s smart enough to know you’re writing B-U, but it isn’t smart enough to know you made a mistake. Your computer isn’t smart to know that it can fix it. So, what I really like ... is it will follow all of your directions."
Today, with more than 20 different workshops under her belt (all to kids about her age), and a beta-version board game that has more than 10 different levels by which to teach kids the concepts of coding, Samaira is pretty much in a league of her own. She has given demos and workshops all around the San Francisco Bay Area, often to standing-room-only groups of kids that clamor to try out her board game.
"Programming sounded so cool to me," Samaira remembers of when her dad first introduced it to her, figuring she probably wouldn't take to it. But she did, and the love affair is still growing. It's a love affair that she figures, ultimately, she can also use to help others as well.
"A lot of kids my age want to be an engineer, so I thought maybe if I teach coding, maybe they can learn to be an engineer," says the founder of Coderbunnyz, a website and blog named after her boardgame.
Asked whether she gets a chance to practice her skills in tech classes at school, Samaira admitted that her school isn't quite equipped to teach concepts like coding yet. In fact, according to Samaira and her dad, it's one of many examples of schools that don't teach coding due to resources, in part because school boards don't perceive it as a priority for their budgets.
"The school has started [teaching] computer labs to get kids to do some typing," says Samaira's dad, Rakesh Mehta. "But coding is more of logic and it requires more of real thinking, computational thinking" and that's something that schools in general haven't introduced.
As TriplePundit reported in our Tech Titans series last fall, only 1 in 4 schools surveyed in a 2014 Gallup poll commissioned by Google teach coding. At the same time, 9 in 10 parents surveyed want their kids to have the opportunity to learn coding and advanced computer skills, and feel it should be part of the curriculum. Yet less than half of the 11,558 superintendents and principals surveyed felt that their boards supported more computer science resources. And many "do not perceive a high level of demand for computer science among students and parents in their communities."
Meanwhile, countries like Finland, France, the United Kingdom and Estonia have either begun planning elementary school-level coding classes or have already integrated them into the curriculum, leaving the U.S. educational system behind in equipping future workers for what is already a burgeoning industry.
That disconnect in U.S. schools has given rise to a plethora of companies and organizations in this country that are trying to fill the gap with coding clubs, summer schools and other private resources that wedge the door open for girls and minorities. But it may not necessarily help kids like Samaira, who is self-driven and eager to use what she has learned in her everyday school classes -- where the incentive is there, but the resources aren't.
Experts are beginning to look at that question, however, Rakesh says. Both schools and educational game designers have already learned that kids pick up concepts well, when doing something fun and engaging. Language and educational websites like Quia.com capitalize on that idea by promoting learning and practice through interactive online games. Board games like Coderbunnyz do much the same because they have the "potential to (teach) how to get into the system and help kids to start learning some of those concepts. But in a fun way," Rakesh says.
Asked whether she plans to market Coderbunnyz for mass production, Samaira admitts that she's not sure because her first love is teaching the board game. "I just want to do is workshops and see how the kids like it. What I really want to do is make kids excited about coding and let their dreams come true of being an engineer or whatever they want to do. But anything is possible," she says. "Maybe one day, when one kid says I really, really want this, I will put it on Amazon or something like that."
Just the same, she's fairly realistic about what she is doing and what beginning coders need to know for the future.
As for Coderbunnyz, she says, kids need to remember: "You are not learning coding. You are only doing a board game."
And for kids -- small or very big -- who want to start that path on the way to becoming an engineer?
"I would want them to know coding is fun. Don’t feel stressed when you are doing coding. I mean, I have felt stressed when I have been doing coding. But if you’re calm, you will really like it."
Great advice for today's budding techies of all ages.
Images: Courtesy of Coderbunnyz
Jan Lee is a former news editor and award-winning editorial writer whose non-fiction and fiction have been published in the U.S., Canada, Mexico, the U.K. and Australia. Her articles and posts can be found on TriplePundit, JustMeans, and her blog, The Multicultural Jew, as well as other publications. She currently splits her residence between the city of Vancouver, British Columbia and the rural farmlands of Idaho.