Our wonderful volunteer Sean has shared his Code Club set-up story, a must-read for any potential volunteers (but great for current ones too!). If you’d like to share your story, or tell us about anything exciting happening in your club, please do get in touch. :)
My name is Sean McManus and as well as being a Code Club volunteer, I’m a copywriter and book author, specialising in business and technology. I wrote Scratch Programming in Easy Steps, Web Design in Easy Steps and co-wrote Raspberry Pi For Dummies. Like many volunteers, I grew up at a time when almost everyone in the playground knew how to write a few lines of code, and I used to beaver away writing programs on my Amstrad CPC at home.
When I first heard about Code Club, I was looking for a volunteering opportunity that was a good match for my skills and interests, after volunteering at the London 2012 Olympics. Code Club seemed like the perfect fit.
I was excited about the impact Code Club could have on young people, especially at a time when education is shifting gear to focus more on computer science and less on office skills. I was lucky enough to have computer clubs available to me when I was in school. In junior school, the headmaster formed a computer club for a small group of us who learned to program LOGO on the Link 480Z. At secondary school, the IT teacher gave a group of us lessons at lunch time so we could take a GCSE in Computer Science, which wasn’t officially supported by the school at the time. Both of these extra-curricular activities had a huge impact on my school life, and helped lay foundations for my later career.
Since January I have been running a Code Club at a local junior school. The process of setting up the club took a little bit of time but was easy. First, I had to get a DBS certificate (which used to be called a CRB check), which I did through STEMNET. STEMNET ran an introductory session for volunteers with some helpful pointers on working with children and young people. Through the Code Club website, I was introduced to a school near me that was looking for a volunteer.
I set up the Code Club in partnership with the deputy head from the school, who has been hugely enthusiastic. He’s been preparing the exercises before going into each session, as have I, so that we can guide the children through them when they hit a sticking point. Our club has 24 members which is a lot of children to get around during the session, so it’s made a huge difference that we’re both able to help squash nasty bugs in code. It was only at Code Club’s second birthday party when I was talking to other volunteers that I realised how unusual it was to have a group this large!
The club members have been excited by the idea of making video games, but they were equally inspired by simple things too. They loved making a rainbow-coloured circle and adding a password to their Scratch game. They were excited to share even their simplest Scratch projects online, and publish websites that their families could see. The best bits are when you see them have a real “aha!” moment and figure something out for the first time.
It’s all possible because of the Code Club projects. They’ve made it easy for children to start making cool things quickly, and have made it easy for us to prepare to lead the group too. It would have been extremely difficult to run the club without having those resources available.
One thing we found is that some of the children would race to finish the projects by copying the blocks of code without really thinking about what they were doing. We really wanted them to be able to make their own games, not just copy other people’s, so we made some small demos to explain topics like Scratch broadcasts and loops. We ran through one of these before going into a full project each week, so they would understand what they were using when they came across it in the full project later. I published these 10-block Scratch demos on my website. I hope they prove useful in other Code Clubs too!
My advice to people considering becoming a volunteer is to definitely do it. It’s been a great experience, and it’s gone really smoothly. Although I had a headstart with the technologies, they’re all easy enough to pick up, so you don’t need to know Scratch, Python or web design to run a successful club. I’d strongly recommend running through the project before each session so you’re familiar with the potential pitfalls and can warn the children about them. That also makes it easier to guide them back on the right path if their projects don’t work.
The school I volunteer with was looking for someone for over a year before I registered. I had lots of other approaches from other schools too that were interested in working with me, so it’s clear that there is a huge demand for volunteers. If you can spare a couple of hours a week, I hope you’ll consider becoming one. It’s a great experience for the children, but it’s extremely satisfying for the volunteer too.