Today, I’m talking to Michelle Sun, the author of the book, First Time Coders. Michelle, who has been featured on the Forbes 30 under 30 List and is one of the BBC’s 100 Influential Women, is a visiting instructor at the MIT Computer Science Artificial Intelligence Lab and the founder of First Code Academy.
This educational institute teaches coding to kids as young as age four and up through age 18. In her new book, Michelle provides a handbook for parents whose kids are interested in learning how to code. Best of all, this handbook is useful even for parents who don’t know how to code themselves, and it contains age appropriate exercises for kids all the way from four through 18.
In this episode, Michelle explains why for kids today, coding is an essential language no different than learning French or Italian. She also explains how coding opens up an entirely new realm of creativity for children and turns technology from a passive endeavor into an active one.
Michelle Sun: I learned coding quite late compared to our students. I was an economics major, and after my first job, I took as coding course, and that was how I learned coding systematically.
In my experience, learning coding is quite different from this day and age to these students in our classrooms. Learning coding at a young age is about exploration, about creating, and for an adult, it’s really about dialing back to that mindset.
I really appreciate that I had the opportunity to learn coding even after college and that also kind of make me want to spread coding to a younger age, because I really wish I learned it earlier.
Nikki Van Noy: Amazing. What made you decide to put your focus on youth and teaching coding at such a young age?
Michelle Sun: That’s a good question. The reason behind focusing on youth is that when I looked at the economy today, there’s so much demand for good technology all around us. We are getting our groceries in a different way, we’re getting around the city in a different way, and these are all changes brought along to us with technology.
A lot of schools, when I first started First Code Academy, were not teaching coding yet. I saw this need for kids to learn this new world language. And I think that’s important for their future and for the world in the years to come as well.
Working with Little Ones
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about what it looks like when you’re talking about this really young sector of children?
Michelle Sun: Definitely. You know, my nephew is two and a half years old. They’re so curious about any devices, and what we do with the four year old is we start off with what we call screenless coding. We have tools and robots that we found very useful and practical for students that are this young to learn the concepts of coding first.
They learn concepts like loops or functions or commands, and these are all things that can be taught without a screen, and this eases the concern from parents quite drastically because we noticed that a lot of parents do not want their kids to interact with screens so early on or at least for an extended period of time. We start them off with these robots and build them up from there.
Nikki Van Noy: It sounds like what you’re essentially doing is beginning to teach children a new language, just like you might introduce them to French or Spanish or any other language at a young age. Is that correct?
Michelle Sun: Absolutely. When we talk about coding, it’s really about learning a computer programming language, and there’s a reason why it’s called a language. It’s essentially a way for us humans to communicate with computers.
We want to learn this language so that we can translate our ideas to tell the computer to do that for us. It’s a very powerful thing.
Nikki Van Noy: Wow, essentially, with the children you’re working with, this is just going to be an innate language for them moving forward?
Michelle Sun: Yeah, it’s amazing to see students that after 10, 15 hours of learning how to code, they immediately transform their vision of the world. They are interacting with the iPad or their phone and before the class, they were pretty much like playing games, watching YouTube videos and after learning how to code. They realize that this device in front of them can also be a creative expression for them. So they can make their own apps, they can make their own games and share with their friends.
Nikki Van Noy: It’s turning into an active endeavor as opposed to a passive one?
Michelle Sun: Exactly.
Older Kids and Code
Nikki Van Noy: I love that. Moving out of the four-year-old set, give me a glimpse into some of your older student’s lives? What kind of things are these kids learning to do? What can they create?
Michelle Sun: Yeah, sky is the limit when it comes to coding, and it’s amazing to see these students once they pick up their first language. For example, for the 12 year olds, we start them off with a tool called App Inventor, which is a tool to help them learn how to make their first mobile application.
It’s a very surreal experience for them where before learning how to code, their whole life is about downloading other people’s apps and now, they can solve problems for their parents or themselves and create applications, that is a real life solution.
Nikki Van Noy: How are you seeing kids react to completing this creative process and seeing that they have the power to go from idea to creation?
Michelle Sun: I think a key emotion that I saw is this sense of accomplishment and this sense of empowerment that they have gained from learning how to code. One of our students, Sarah, she has a large family and her mom asked her to help her organize the whole family’s calendar with an app.
So her mom has been doing this on the analog way of having a large piece of paper in the kitchen and Sarah was able to create this whole digital version that could be updated by all of her siblings, and her parents just from their respective mobile phones, and so this is an app that probably only her family would use for now but for her it is a huge thing. And for her mom as well, and it’s just this feeling of empowered to solve problems around her. I am sure she will go on to create other meaningful things as well.
Who Needs First Time Coders
Nikki Van Noy: I am wondering if there are adults out there who are late to the game, can they make use of this book also, or is it specifically geared toward children?
Michelle Sun: Yeah, that’s a good question. So the inspiration behind writing this book is that when we interact with many parents in the past few years of running classes, the main question from parents is that, “Well, I don’t know how to code, and I want my kids to learn, and where do we start?”
So the book is the answer to the multitude of questions that we collected and some experience that we have accumulated over the years.
I think for any adults that want to learn coding, there are specific chapters of the book that specifically the older ages for 12 and above age groups, could be quite interesting for adults to look into as well. The reason is that I see that for learning how to code—having the foundation of the first language is the most important, building that solid foundation.
So for adults, if they want to read a few chapters of the book, I would highly recommend it.
Nikki Van Noy: I feel like you are in a position to speak to some of the things we feel really good about in terms of technology, moving forward, and its impact on our children and on their lives as they grow older and step into this new world.
Michelle Sun: You know, the way I see technology is that it is a tool that could be used for positive consequences and negative consequences. I believe that it is good to educate children about this tool instead of running away from it.
I think it is about instilling the right mindset, and one of the things that we talked about just now is about being an active creator rather than a passive consumer of the technologies.
I think the abundance of technology around us is really providing more of a leveled playing field for our children going forward. For example, in the past, in order for someone to become an actress, you need to go through Hollywood and all of these things.
And nowadays, if you are a talented creator, you can leverage tools like YouTube and Instagram and garner your own audience. And I think that is an example of not just coding but really leveraging technology in a creative way. That’s what First Code Academy is about. It is about helping empower these next generation to become creators.
Nikki Van Noy: Talk to me a little bit about how you’re drawing parents or teachers in here and allowing this to be sort of interactive thing.
Michelle Sun: So the main idea behind this book is that we see that a lot of parents and adults want to be involved in a child’s coding-learning journey, and it is quite challenging compared to other subjects that kids learn.
For example, if a child wants to learn English or if the child wants to learn math, an adult is probably pretty capable of sitting next to a child and guiding him through the learning.
And so this book is designed such that we can relate these coding concepts back to their real life. For example with functions and loops and what are some examples in our surroundings, in our daily lives that are also using the concept of loops and functions, and that makes it quite easy for adults even with very minimal or non-coding experience and to make a meaningful conversation with their children and make coding concepts something that they can relate in their daily life.
Nikki Van Noy: Great, so in the time that you’ve been working with and teaching children, are there any creations they’ve come up with that particularly standout in your head for any reason?
Michelle Sun: Oh there are so many but I think my favorite one is this app that two of our students made, and it is an outfit creation app. These two students are always fashionably late. So they thought that the reason why they’re always late is because they want to match their outfits and make sure that their outfits look good.
So they created this app that tracks all of their clothes at home and it is able to mix and match their outfits before and plan ahead of their gatherings. I think that is a really fun thing to do and quite applicable to teenagers as well. I really liked that idea.