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July 25, 2014

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Powerful Partnerships, Pi, and Python Behind the Success of Teen Tech Camp

Imagine a day in your library devoted to the basics of coding in Python and sending a roomful of teens home with computers they can keep. Now imagine doing this for about $30! It’s completely possible, because it happened at Southwest Regional Library, a regional branch of the Durham County Library system in Durham, North Carolina.

Teen Tech Camp: Raspberry Pi

9413smile Powerful Partnerships, Pi, and Python Behind the Success of Teen Tech Camp

Photo credit: Rebecca Murphey

Our library partnered with local tech professionals Julia Elman and Sarah Kahn (UNC-SILS MLS 2008) to host a daylong event focused on programming Raspberry Pi using the Python programming language. Thanks to a generous donation from the Python Software Foundation (PSF), we were able to provide each attendee with a Raspberry Pi, power supply, an SD card, and two books on programming in Python to take home.

The event was open to students ages 12 to 18, regardless of previous computer programming experience. Sign up was first-come, first-served, and teens who attended a similar event in Fall 2012 were given a bit of advance notice. Only twenty spots were available due to the limited amount of equipment we received from our PSF grant. Volunteers from the tech community set up the network and provided instruction. Noted Python educator Kurt Grandis developed the curriculum outline for the day, but when Kurt had a family emergency, Clinton Dreisbach stepped in at short notice to provide the actual instruction.

Seventeen students spent from 10 am to 5 pm learning the basics of programming in Python as well as the ins and outs of using a Raspberry Pi. We were able to send them home with the materials provided by the grant, as well as a free monitor, keyboard, and mouse. In other words, a free computer. How much did this cost my library? About $30, spent on name badges and painter’s tape.

Powerful Partnerships

9413i got it Powerful Partnerships, Pi, and Python Behind the Success of Teen Tech Camp

Photo credit: Rebecca Murphey

How was it possible to provide such high quality STEM programming to the teens in Durham for almost no cost to the library? We were able to benefit from powerful partnerships. When the PSF grant came through (in a mere six weeks), Sarah and Julia began canvassing for volunteers and materials.

They gathered gently used peripherals from individual donors as well as from Triangle Ecycling, a local ewaste recycling organization. Julia’s company, Caktus Consulting Group, provided funding for a healthy breakfast and lunch for campers and volunteers. Splatspace, a local hackerspace, donated nifty 3D printed Raspberry Pi cases. The City of Wilson (home of North Carolina’s first community owned gigabit broadband network) provided the campers with goody bags and cool promo sunglasses. Providing these extras was a great way to show teens and their parents that they are valued members of the library community.

Lasting Results

Teen Tech Camp attendees ranged from 12 year-olds with no programming experience to 18-year-old veteran hackers. Teaching complex concepts to a diverse audience was not easy. Some of our attendees were definitely more motivated by the copy of Minecraft we preloaded on to their Pi than anything else.

9413thinking 2 Powerful Partnerships, Pi, and Python Behind the Success of Teen Tech Camp

Photo credit: Rebecca Murphey

But to quote organizer Julia Elman, our “goal for the 2013 Teen Tech Camp was not to have the students walk out of the library, ready to take on complex computer programming challenges. It was to spark interest in the students and get them excited… By using varying techniques and providing a safe space for learning, we were able to engage every student at an individual pace. They will take away the motivation, energy and drive to keep on learning, because someone believes in them.”

During the 2013-2014 school year, we plan to support the young coding community created at Teen Tech Camp by hosting library sponsored hackerthons and providing further resources online. By providing high quality materials and technology instruction to young people, we hope to empower the next generation, increase diversity in the technology field, and encourage teens to be digital content creators as well as consumers. You can do it too!

Autumn Winters, Teen Services Manager at Southwest Regional Library, a regional branch of the Durham County Library system in Durham, North Carolina

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This article was featured in School Library Journal's SLJTeen enewsletter. Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you twice a month for free.

Dodie Ownes About Dodie Ownes

Dodie Ownes left the glamorous world of retrospective conversion and disco to jump on the library vendor train. Since then, she has been learning at the feet of the masters about all things library. Dodie lives in Golden, Colorado, where even the sign which arches the main street says "Howdy."

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