Eight-year-old Lauren Edwards is a busy girl.
On Wednesdays, she attends a youth group at her church. Thursdays, she's off to piano lessons. Saturday mornings are spent at gymnastics. And on Tuesday evenings, she's learning a computer programming language.
Since October, she and three classmates, who all live near 55th and Blondo Streets, gather their computer monitors, keyboards and mice one night a week and head over to Burch Kealey's house for an hour of coding in the Kealeys' kitchen.
The class is somewhat informal, but absolutely deliberate. Kealey's 9-year-old son, Patrick, is also participating.
“I see these kids and the only thing they can do with computers is what other people have decided they can do,” Kealey said. “(The class) was deliberate in the sense that I wanted my son and his friends to have a different perspective on what computers were for.”
He hopes the class he stages in his kitchen helps other parents recognize that kids can learn and do more than many people think.
Omaha and the region's shortage of software developers is on the minds of Omaha startup founders and corporate CEOs alike, and independent code schools like the recently launched Interface and Omaha Code School aim to help fill that gap by jump-starting new careers for adults.
However, that's not Kealey's goal in teaching five kids 10 and under how to code.
“We aren't training people to go work for MindMixer,” Kealey joked. Nathan Preheim, co-founder of MindMixer, lives next door to the Kealeys, and his 10-year-old son, Ethan, is a student in Kealey's class.
Preheim's initial reaction to the proposal of a coding class for the kids: “This is the coolest thing ever.”
The value, Kealey said, comes from the problem-solving and analytical skills required to figure out what went wrong when a string of code comes up with an error message. “Having the kids go through that, that's where the value comes,” he said.
A number of years ago, Kealey, an accounting professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, taught himself to code using Python for a project he was working on at the university.
“I was just amazed at all the things I could do with it, so that caused me to think about teaching my son,” he said. “I've been thinking about it for a number of years, but I just decided that this was the right year. (Patrick) was at the right place to do this.”
Last summer, Kealey discovered the Raspberry Pi, a credit card-sized computer that costs about $68 and hooks up to any monitor, keyboard and mouse to perform basic functions. Suddenly, a coding class for the neighborhood kids seemed feasible.
So he approached three parents of Patrick's neighborhood friends in the fall and asked them if they were interested in having their kids participate.
“One kind of thought that was consistent was, do you think he or she is ready for this? And that was a fear, because I think a lot of people think computer programming is something that's really unapproachable.”
Coding classes are becoming more and more available for adults, and now they're catching on for kids, too. You can teach yourself to code using just about any language online, and Omaha's first two coding schools for adults launched this year.
For kids, AIM this year began piloting CoderDojo, a global movement of free coding workshops for kids ages 8 to 17, in Omaha, Council Bluffs and Kearney. The workshops include Scratch, which introduces kids ages 8 to 12 to the concepts of coding using interactive games and animations.
Most of the workshops already have filled up, said youth and community engagement manager Stefanie Ramsey.
“So far it's been successful, so our plan is to probably offer these again in the fall and extend it and have more sessions,” Ramsey said. For more information, visit aimforbrilliance.org/coderdojo.
Last week, Kealey's kids were working on a translation system that would convert Roman numerals to numbers.
The kids sit at the Kealeys' kitchen island with their computers while Kealey starts the class by asking questions about the week's homework assignment. The atmosphere is laid back, with the kids chattering with one another and Kealey making jokes.
Kealey builds off of what the kids have already learned to create more complex strings of code. “A big part of coding is to reuse things,” Kealey told the kids during class.
When running a piece of code, one student ran into an error message. Kealey used it as a teachable moment by asking the kids to look at his screen and try to figure out what went wrong.
Lauren's dad, Jeff Edwards, an attorney, said he doesn't expect his daughter to be a professional programmer when she grows up. “We thought it would be good for her to have an understanding of how programming works, how a computer works, as opposed to just using it.”
However, coding is valuable in almost any career right now, Preheim said. His 10-year-old son now possesses some of the skills that developers he employs learned when they were in their late teens and 20s.
“I think I am the envy of a lot of parents,” he said. “It's such a desirable skill right now. As an employer of software developers, we can't find enough good talent. We're just so grateful (Kealey) is willing to do it.”
Matt Egbert, a psychiatrist at the University of Nebraska Medical Center and dad to code students Spencer, 7, and Quentin, 9, said he feels his sons are at a good age to learn the skill. “They're excited about what they hope to be able to do,” he said. “It gives you a better understanding of how the world works.”
Nine-year-old Patrick Kealey said, “I've found it to be much more interesting than what I've done with computers in the past.” He's interested in coding, he said, until he “runs out of practical uses for it.”
Quentin Egbert said: “I'd like to do this for the rest of my life.”
Preheim said he wants to continue Ethan's coding education once Kealey runs of out of things to teach them. All of the parents said they would be interested in a summer camp or similar class that could take the kids to the next level.
“If someone was able to take them beyond where I can take them, certainly. I suspect there's a lot of parents who are too afraid to even attempt this on their own, which is unfortunate,” Kealey said.
Preheim wasn't sure if Kealey's model is something that could be re-created for the next stage of his son's learning. Preheim joked that internships at MindMixer might not be feasible yet.
“To get him to jump into the homework assignments, there's no resistance at all. As a 10-year-old ... it looks like a spark has been ignited.”