Moncton coding school expands across borders to meet demand

When Jeff Hughes of Riverview started offering coding camps in the summer of 2015, the parents of most of the children who registered were already computer programmers themselves.

Since then, the founder and CEO of Level Up Kids has seen the popularity of coding explode, and his business has followed suit, expanding not only what it teaches but where.

"The goal is to always be teaching what's next, what schools aren't teaching yet but what culture kind of needs," Hughes said.

"We've expanded what we're doing so there's less Minecraft but more choices," he said. "There's a definite interest globally for computer science and enrichment courses."

Last year Hughes expanded his camp locations across the Maritimes, and this summer Level Up Kids will offer courses for students between the ages of eight and 15 across Canada and in Minnesota and Trinidad.

Hughes said the Trinidad camps, which begin next week, are already sold out.

He met his partner from the Caribbean island last summer, when he was signing his son up for one of Hughes' camps in Halifax.

"I just jokingly said, 'Hey, if you ever want to have a camp in Trinidad let me know,' so we've been working on it since September. He really liked the idea and a lot of his friends had been sending their kids up to California ... for these kinds of programs so there's a big interest."

Maker movement expanding

Hughes said the offerings of his company are expanding to include technical skills such as how to start a successful YouTube channel to traditional skills such as sewing.

"We're looking at more hands-on skills that, once upon a time, people would have learned. ... There is a demand for that."

He agreed sewing seems a departure from coding and robotics but said it's all part of the movement of making things.

"It's still part of the creation," Hughes said. "They're creating video games, they're creating movies, they're creating characters that they're sewing and the maker movement is quite large among kids and adults as well."

Hughes said he hopes his students will gain problem-solving skills, whatever camp they attend.

"That's one of the big things in computer programming — if something isn't right, then they have to work to figure it out — you can't just bypass it," he said.

"The same with the robots that we'll make this summer. You have to get the circuits lined up right or it won't work. And I think problem solving is a big skill that a lot of kids, my own kids included, if they can't find something they just kind of freeze."

But this generation of children can grow up knowing how to fix things, he suggested.

"Team work and collaboration are all really important skills. This all came out of looking at the Maritimes and the future and what skills [students] will need to make it in the world."

N.B. students still lags

In its 10-year education plan, released in September, the Gallant government said computer programming was a key learning goal beginning in elementary school.

In an email statement, a spokesperson for the Department of Education said coding is part of the curriculum in Grades 6 to 9 and is also part of computer science courses which have been "refreshed' to include an emphasis on coding.

"The early adoption of learning and teaching technologies and related coding will support students with a foundation for success in many career paths," Kelly Cormier wrote.

"At the elementary level, teachers are encouraged to integrate coding into all subject areas where possible."

In the Francophone sector, Cormier said all high school students are able to take a coding course as an elective, however in elementary and middle school it is not part of the curriculum.

Cormier said a pilot project will begin in May in at least three Grade 7 classes that will give students the opportunity to learn about coding for one hour every week.

Hughes said he will continue to go into schools to introduce students to coding.

But he said the reality is there isn't the technology available for many teachers to make coding in the classroom a reality. Hughes points to his children's school, where there are only three working computers, as an example.

"It's one thing to say we're going to teach all of our kids, but until the schools have the computers and the technology to do that, it's really difficult."

Hughes said he has also noticed a trend among his campers — a large percentage of them come from immigrant families.

"Probably 30 per cent or so ... are from Vietnam or China, some from Japan, a few from Syria. ... They have come from a country where [coding] might be a priority so they see the need and opportunity to do it here," he said.

"Before kids would come and do Minecraft but now parents want a very serious multi-year curriculum to prepare them for university."