A group of students in the game creation class at Buzz Aldrin Middle School work on a series of projects. PHOTO COURTESY DANIEL TAYLOR

By ERIN ROLL
roll@montclairlocal.news

Want to learn how to build a robot? Write a computer program? Or just want to play around with circuits?

If you’re a student in the Montclair area, there’s likely a class on that for you.

Coding classes for children and teenagers have been increasing in popularity over the past five years.

Montclair’s three middle schools all offer coding and robotics as an elective or as an extracurricular club, while Montclair High School’s robotics club has competed in local and regional competitions.

Daniel Taylor is the STEM coordinator at Buzz Aldrin. The school offers a game creation class each semester as part of its electives. “My classes are full,” Taylor said on Monday. “From my perspective, it’s very popular.”

The game creation class is a semester-long program, and includes two projects, one for each marking period. The class involves working with the Finch, which is a beginners’ programmable robot developed by Carnegie-Mellon, and the Lego EV3 kits. One project also involved building a series of cardboard “skate parks” and sending Olly mini robots through each of the courses.

The game design element puts an emphasis on collaboration, with students working together on what the game will look like and how it will work. This involves such skills as marketing, public speaking and writing clearly and effectively, he says.

Every now and then, a teacher stopping by his classroom will tell him what they think of the game creation class. “Often times, I get the feedback, ‘Wow, this looks awesome,’” he says.

Taylor thinks that the chance to make things and build things is a big draw for most of the students, while other students come specifically for the coding.

And maybe, some of the kids will think that maybe coding “isn’t just for geeky, corny people,” Taylor said.

The class includes block-based coding, rather than typing lines of code from scratch.

For the last two years, Taylor has taken his students (and their parents) to Scratch Day: an annual gathering of young coders and robot builders using the Scratch coding platform. “Every year they ask us to come back,” Taylor said.

According to the advocacy website Code.org, New Jersey has three pieces of pending legislation that would require students to take a computer science class to graduate from high school, and mandate that schools offer computer science courses. It would also require the state to offer certification for computer science teachers in schools.

Outside of the Montclair schools, a number of businesses have arisen to help teach kids the basics of coding as well.

Jamie Pagliaro is the co-owner of Yukodit, a Montclair-based business that teaches coding to children from elementary school through high school. The program meets during the week in an office at St. James Episcopal Church.

Students meet for a class session in Yukodit’s office spaces at St. James Episcopal Church on Monday, Dec. 11. ERIN ROLL/STAFF

Like the program at Buzz Aldrin, Yukodit helps introduce students to the concepts of coding by showing them how to build games. Recently, Yukodit has had its students working on designing and building a game that teaches the player about a certain subject, like natural disasters or climate change.

Yukodit also uses block coding. “It’s drag and drop rather than typing command line coding,” Pagliaro said.

The kids like the aspect of being able to build and create. “They know that’s what you do to create the things they’re playing,” he said. And the parents like the academic aspect of the program, as well as being assured that their kids aren’t staring mindlessly at a screen during the program.

Starting next year, Pagliaro said, the goal is to get Yukodit’s students paired up with local nonprofits, to help the nonprofits improve their websites or address other technology issues. “We really are trying to move toward an ecosystem in which our children are engaging with the community,” he said.