These Vancouver high school students noticed a gap in coding education. So they filled it

When he switched from public to private school, Austin Ma noticed a stark difference: his new school offered significantly more computer classes, a gap in education he found “disturbing”.

“I was able to take advantage of all these really fun new coding lessons, but aware that they weren’t available to other kids who shared the same interests in learning.”

As the COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns in March 2020, Ma was looking for something to occupy her free time. Along with his friend Kevin Guo, he started Coding Pals Foundation, a nonprofit service that provides coding education to students who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

High school students with coding skills volunteer their time to teach other students online, primarily in British Columbia, but also in other cities across Canada.

Kids across Canada can now access free virtual coding lessons thanks to the Coding Pals Foundation. (Rafferty Baker/CBC)

Without having basic coding knowledge, Ma said, it is impossible for young people to know whether or not they want to pursue post-secondary education in computer science.

“The main goal is to address the vast educational disparities within the BC school system,” he said, adding that coding skills are becoming increasingly important.

“I think we’re in a world where technology is really, really taking over. And, I guess, coding, I feel like it’s just a really, really important skill that just isn’t not really democratized and made available to everyone.”

Through word of mouth and sharing their program on social media, Ma and Guo were able to gather 100 students for their first class in 2020.

Since then, 25 instructors have joined the team and more than 1,400 students have enrolled in the program.

“We received an overwhelmingly positive response from our community, with many students and parents reaching out to tell us how much they enjoyed our classes and learned a lot from them,” Guo said.

One of the students who signed up was eight-year-old Natalie Liu, who is in Grade 3 at Renfrew Elementary School in Vancouver.

She said she was introduced to coding in first grade when she started playing computer games, and now she can learn how to make her own games.

“Coding is fun,” she said. “It really excites me to make games.”

Natalie said her instructors were patient with her as she learned the basics.

Her mother, Tammy Tan, said she appreciates that classes are free, giving her daughter a chance to try something new without risk.

She said she has four kids and it wouldn’t necessarily be affordable if they all wanted to take coding classes.

Austin Ma says knowing how to code is becoming increasingly important for young people, but access to this education is lacking. (Heather Gillis/CBC)

Anthony He, a grade 9 student at St. Patrick Regional Secondary, also took classes through the Coding Pals Foundation.

“I like creating things as it relates to computers. I also like creating YouTube videos. I edit a lot. I thought coding would be very helpful for that,” he said.

His mother, Chris Gui, said having the lessons taught by her son’s peers made it less traditional and more fun.

“I feel like Anthony was more engaged and involved in the class,” Gui said.

Ma and Guo hope to create more formal partnerships with elementary and middle schools in Vancouver to help more young people code.

Eventually, they want to do the same with schools across Canada.

The Coding Pals Foundation enlisted sponsors, including a Waterloo, Ontario-based software company called Maplesoft, to help cover running costs. They have also received funding through grants and fundraising efforts.

Now a senior at St. George’s School in Vancouver, Ma said he plans to pursue a career in education once he graduates from high school next spring.

He plans to continue teaching a few classes and training younger students to oversee the day-to-day operations of the foundation while remaining involved in larger decisions by serving on the organization’s board of directors.

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