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Lancaster County, PA is a place known for its “old world” lifestyles: Amish buggies rattling down roads, canned produce for sale in front of farmhouses, and many shops still closed on Sundays….but it’s also a place where youngsters are learning about cutting-edge technologies, through a local program called “Lancaster CoderDojo” that’s helping a new generation to meet some of the challenges of today’s data-centric world.

Based in Ireland, CoderDojo is a “global network” where kids learn computer programming in a fun and interactive way. Communities around the world can set up their own local chapters, and now, two of Lancaster County’s public libraries, the Manheim Township public library and the downtown Lancaster location, are getting on board.

With the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimating demand for computer programmers to grow at 8% (2012-2022), there’s a healthy demand for coding skills. But there’s also the broader idea that the kinds of skills involved in coding, the logical and technical skills, will be crucial for the next generations of American workers. CoderDojo offers a fun way to get kids involved while they are young, preparing them for a lifetime of learning.

At CoderDojo events, kids bring their own gear or get assigned a laptop or device. They work on collaborative or individual projects that show them the fundamental designs of apps and programming languages, and introduce them to the basic logic that computer science is built on.

The Manheim township library has just started offering this event; the first CoderDojo session was held in early March. According to Youth Services Manager Mary Ann Stanley, it was a hit.

“It was very well attended.” Stanley said, adding the next event on April 14 will be moved from the library’s smaller ‘silo’ space to a large conference room off of the lobby, to provide room for all participants.

Megan Eshleman also works in the library’s youth services department. She says when local coder Dan McCormick approached the library with the idea, her team recognized an opportunity.

“We said: ‘absolutely.’” Eshleman said. “We don’t have the tech support or staffing to do it ourselves.”

In some ways, said Eshleman, the CoderDojo builds on a prior program called the Hour of Code that the library has offered annually, which offers some hands-on or lab type activities where kids learned about logic in visual ways. The CoderDojo program, she said, is meant to be a natural progression that allows for a range of skills and interests.

“(Dan) wanted to let it free-flow and start up in an organic way.” Eshleman said.

Part of the challenge, she added, was catering to the different skill levels of kids in the session, which is why the next CoderDojo wil be split up into two age groups: 7-12 and 12-17.

In the March session, she said, many of the younger children were happy playing online learning games available at the web site Codelancaster.org, where they learn to do basic programming like drawing or issuing commands to digital avatars. The adults running the session would help out if a user hit a snag. But, she said, some of the older kids had different plans.

“They wanted to develop apps, do coding.” Eshleman said.

At the same time, she said, aside from learning technical skills, the March event was an opportunity for both the kids and parents in attendance to get to know each other.

“It was just fun.” Eshleman said. “A lot of them were socializing, finding common interests.”

With clubs like this one popping up around the country, families are taking another step toward “computer programming for the people” – and making coding less of an elite, technocratic activity, and more of a fun hobby, one that will help young people to become more capable builders and consumers as they grow.

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