While most of Chicago knows Logan Square for its acclaimed restaurants, lively farmers market and eclectic bar scene, Ali Karbassi has found a home in this food-frenzied neighborhood for something a little less edible: CoderDojoChi, a nonprofit organization dedicated to teaching kids ages 7-17 how to code. Based out of Second Shift (3432 W. Diversey Ave.), CoderDojoChi’s mission is “to create a fun, collaborative environment to explore STEM” (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) through “web, game, and app development” all for free. Seriously.
Karbassi launched CoderDojoChi in 2013 to connect kids with coding, particularly young girls and kids from low-income families. He designed the organization to eliminate the ideas that programming and computers are reserved for boys or require substantial funds by lowering that barrier to entry.
“We made sure that the courses we taught could be worked on anywhere—you don’t need to own your own computer,” Karbassi said. “We wanted to make sure that the students could work on what they learned at any machine, such as the library or school. There isn’t this barrier of entry, which is usually the problem.”
On the strength of generous donations from businesses and individuals, classes are free and laptops are provided for the students.
Connecting Tech, Diversity and Opportunity
The passion to bridge the gap between technology and diversity has always been with Karbassi. As a double major in software engineering and photography at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville, he couldn’t help but notice the gender disparities between his art and engineering classes. The lack of women and minorities in his engineering classes inspired him to begin teaching his friends—many of them female—basic programming skills. Eventually, what began as peer tutoring sessions grew to small, informal workshops.
Karbassi’s crusade to bring more women and minorities into the technology fold continued through the early stages of his career at The Nerdery in Minneapolis. He started attending industry conferences and soon thereafter began speaking on panels about women in STEM fields. But speaking on the topic wasn’t enough, so Karbassi created an organization with the idea that if young girls and kids from all backgrounds learned how to code at an early age, they would be more likely to pursue an education and eventual career in tech. Or, they would at least know they had the option.
“There isn’t a career that they can go into that doesn’t require them to interact with technology,” he said. “It’s not just the future, it’s the now. We’ve haven’t prepared our kids enough. We need to do better.”
There are hopes to expand the curriculum to include classes on robotics programming and Android development, but those plans are on hold until the organization is able to raise the funds necessary to support those courses. As much as Karbassi campaigns for monetary donations, people are also encouraged to get involved as volunteer mentors; no programming experience necessary.
Karbassi believes that it is crucial for young people to learn how to code because, as he puts it, “unlike us, kids today are born into a world where technology is everywhere. So, rather than letting them be just consumers, CoderDojoChi teaches them to become producers; to take charge; to build whatever they dream up; to modify anything to make it better.”
Noticeable Program Benefits
He isn’t the only one to recognize the importance of learning how to code. Elysia Duarte, 13, has been to an impressive nineteen classes. When asked why she decided to spend her time with CoderDojoChi, she said she enjoyed the program because it’s unlike any class you get at school.
“I like how there are three different classes because you get to expand your understanding on how websites work, which you use on a daily basis,” Duarte said.
Parents also see the value in what CoderDojoChi has to offer. Sonnet Pacheco brought her older son to his first class and had a positive experience.
“I really appreciate that you can try the class and then decide if you want to contribute,” Pacheco said. “Sometimes you pay for something and it isn’t what you expected but here, I know I’ll be donating to something of quality.” She plans to bring her younger son along when he’s old enough to join them.
Marcus and Nzinga Troutman turned class into a family affair and brought their two young children to a Saturday morning session. Mrs. Troutman noted that “the staff were very hands-on, knowledgeable, and have a genuine interest in coding and spreading their knowledge to youth. Mr. Troutman said he “thought it was fun, interactive, and a great introduction to coding.”
While Karbassi understands the practical advantage in teaching kids how to code, he finds the most joy in his work when he sees his students discover their own passion for programming. “We want to expose kids to STEM but we’re not trying to produce a bunch of engineers,” he said. “We want to spark their interest in tech but more importantly help them find the best path to growing that interest.” And at the end of the day, that’s really what it’s all about.
For more information about CoderDojoChi, upcoming classes, and how to get involved visit their website.
Featured Photo: Daniel Conrad