Programmers sat at nearly a dozen computers in the 400-square-foot room, and one was working with Arduino, a micro-controller intended to make the application of interactive objects more accessible. In the corner of the room, a Makerbot Replicator, a 3D printer that can create a three-dimensional solid object of virtually any shape from a digital model, was humming to life.
This is the Mill Valley Code Club, a relatively new project that technology industry veteran Douglas Tarr founded last fall to spread the love and the skills of computer programming to his kids and their friends. The Thursday afternoon session is girls-only, and the Club overall has since ballooned to 100 kids, and along with popular programs from fellow local outfit MV Gate and activities at the Middle School, coding programs for youth are downright surging in Mill Valley.
“It’s a new literacy to me,” Tarr says, noting that the Club is “absolutely not” about setting kids on a career path. “It’s important for every kid to be able to navigate around a computer and to get them to do what you want. These kids are trying to express themselves – coding helps them do that. They can be creative on the computer – and they can really learn math and science as well.”
Tarr has been in the technology business for 20 years, having worked for and consulted with the likes of Levi Strauss, JPMorganChase and Payscale, the latter of which is a compensation website he founded and served as the vice president of programming for more than a decade.
He and his wife J’Amy, a Mill Valley native and fashion and textile designer, moved back to Mill Valley two years ago after stints in both Seattle, New York City and San Francisco.
He began the Club out of his house with a couple kids, including his 9-year-old son and some of his son’s friends from his Mill Valley Soccer Club team. Tarr’s kids have been playing on computer for several years, both because they seemed interested and because of his own level of interest and the fact that they were so central to his work.
“I hadn’t intended to do this,” Tarr says. “Parents were asking me if there was anywhere to teach your kid to code. It just kind of evolved from there.”
The Club moved into 38 Miller Ave., Suite 9 in January, and just five months later, with 100 kids from first through ninth grade spending time at the Club, Tarr is already thinking he might need more space.
Tarr structures the Club as a monthly program – parents buy a certain number of hours in six-hour increments per month – and the kids have a variety of things to choose to do and work on when they show up. He strives to maintain a ratio of about 3 kids to each instructor each day, and currently has two full-time employees and a few part-time instructors.
“That’s very important to the program,” he says. “When you’re trying to teach something like coding, it’s very challenging at first. So we’ll be keeping that ratio very low.”
He estimates that of the approximately 100 kids coming to the Club, about 40 percent are middle school students, 40 percent are between third and fifth grade and the rest are first and second graders, with students coming from as far as Fairfax, Corte Madera, Tiburon and Sausalito.
Linda Moll, whose daughters Abby, a fifth grader, and Hailey, a third grader, both at Strawberry Point School, are weekly Code Club attendees, says she couldn’t be happier with the Club.
“The things they can do are mind-boggling,” she says. “When you look at what they’ve done – creating, problem-solving and thinking through the end results – what they want and how they’re going to get there, it’s amazing.”
Moll sits on the board of the Strawberry Point PTA, and is involved regularly in conversations about technology as part of the curriculum.
“For me, this was a no brainer,” she says. “It’s not inexpensive, but this is money well spent.”
Mill Valley School District Superintendent Paul Johnson says he fully supports coding activities for students. MV Gate, which was founded by Mill Valley residents John Pearce and Jeff Leane, held an “Hour of Code” night last December at Old Mill School, drawing more than 200 students, Johnson said. The event was part of a global Hour of Code campaign, introduced by Code.org, a group backed by the tech industry that offers free curriculums. The campaign featured videos by Bill Gates, Mark Zuckerberg and President Obama – who urged kids, “Don’t just buy a new video game, make one. Don’t just download the latest app, help design it.”
MV Gate also hosts CodeKids, after-school programs held at three of the district’s five elementary schools.
“It is an activity that prepares students for the 21st Century technological world we live in,” says Johnson, who notes that sixth graders at the Middle School have been working with Scratch. “Most importantly, students that participate are highly motivated and engaged in learning. These after-school activities that have been popular with students and families, and we’re appreciative of their efforts and feel this has benefited many district students and families.”
The New York Times reported that since December, 20,000 teachers from kindergarten through 12th grade have introduced coding lessons, according to Code.org. In addition, some 30 school districts, including New York City and Chicago, have agreed to add coding classes in the fall, mainly in high schools but in lower grades, too.
The surge in coding instruction for kids is “unprecedented — there’s never been a move this fast in education,” Elliot Soloway, a professor of education and computer science at the University of Michigan, told the Times.
“I had no idea the Club would be as popular as it’s been,” he says. “There’s much more demand than there is supply. We’re creating a really exciting space for kids, where they can come and be excited and be exposed to all these different things – and it couldn’t be more relevant than it is today.”
The 411: The Mill Valley Code Club is at 38 Miller Ave., Suite 9.
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