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

·3 min read
Austin Ma, left, and Kevin Guo are the founders of Coding Pals Foundation, a Vancouver-based organization offering free coding classes to students who wouldn't otherwise have access to that type of learning. (Submitted by Austin Ma - image credit)
Austin Ma, left, and Kevin Guo are the founders of Coding Pals Foundation, a Vancouver-based organization offering free coding classes to students who wouldn't otherwise have access to that type of learning. (Submitted by Austin Ma - image credit)

When he made the switch from public to private school, Austin Ma noticed a striking difference: his new school was offering far more computer science courses, a gap in education he found "unsettling."

"I got to enjoy all these new, really fun coding courses, but cognizant that they were unavailable to other kids who shared similar interests to learn."

As the COVID-19 pandemic triggered lockdowns in March 2020, Ma was looking for something to fill his spare time. Along with his friend Kevin Guo, he launched Coding Pals Foundation, a non-profit service that offers coding education to students who would otherwise be without that opportunity.

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

Rafferty Baker/CBC
Rafferty Baker/CBC

Without having basic coding knowledge, Ma said, it's impossible for youth to know whether or not they want to pursue computer science in post-secondary.

"The main goal is to kind of combat vast educational disparities within the B.C. schooling 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 is just 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 registered with the program.

"We've received an extremely positive response from our community, and many students and parents have reached out to tell us about how much they enjoyed our classes and that they 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 to create her own games.

"It's fun to code," she said. "It really excites me to make games."

Natalie said her instructors have been patient with her as she learns the basics.

Her mom, Tammy Tan, said she appreciates that the classes are free, which gives her daughter a chance to try something new with no risk.

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

Heather Gillis/CBC
Heather Gillis/CBC

Anthony He, a Grade 9 student from St. Patrick Regional Secondary, has also been taking classes through the Coding Pals Foundation.

"I like to create things when it comes to computers. I also like to create YouTube videos. I edit a lot. I thought coding would be pretty useful for that," he said.

His mom, Chris Gui, said the fact the classes were 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 get more young people coding.

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

Coding Pals Foundation has brought in sponsors, including a Waterloo, Ont., based software company called Maplesoft, to help with operating costs. They've also received funding through grants and fundraising efforts.

Now a senior at St. George's School in Vancouver, Ma said he's considering a career in education once he finishes high school next spring.

He plans to continue teaching a few courses and training younger students to oversee the day-to-day operations of the foundation while he stays involved with larger decisions by sitting on the organization's board.

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