Teen at Newark Public Library Expands Peer-Led Coding Club Online

The Blissful Coding Club, started by a New Jersey teen to foster STEM engagement in underrepresented communities, expanded with help from Carnegie Mellon students. 

Livingston (NJ) High School student Anusha Bansal monitors multiple coding sessions at once.

Like many teen services librarians, before the pandemic, I was used to working with a large group of energetic teens after school. Our designated teen room had been open for less than two years, but we’d already developed a steady following of middle and high schoolers, many of whom came in year round. What has moved me the most during my work with teens is seeing how generous and vulnerable they can be with one another, especially once they’ve gotten to know each other, by sharing the same recreational space and participating in programs together. I’ve witnessed high school students who wouldn’t normally interact with middle schoolers establish mentor-like relationships after competing against them in Super Smash Brothers tournaments, critiquing each other’s poetry, or editing their code. It is one of the most wonderful aspects of being a librarian: acting as a catalyst for the positive energy and sense of community that libraries foster. And I’ve seen that continue through the pandemic.


When the Newark (NJ) Public Library (NPL) closed its physical branches in March, programming moved online—including story times, crafts, lectures, discussions, and panels. I initially struggled to adapt some of our ongoing teen programming online, namely our coding classes, largely because I wasn’t comfortable with the technology at that time. Before the shutdown, I was searching for a new volunteer to teach our Girls Who Code Club, which met from October through May in the Main Branch’s Technology Training Lab. Parents in the community have consistently asked for more STEM programming over the years, and I have seen the programs make a strong, lasting impact on teens. I knew it was important to continue them, even virtually.

Fortunately, Anusha Bansal, a sophomore at Livingston (NJ) High School, came up with a solution. We initially spoke because she was one of the award recipients of the NJ Scholastic Writing Awards, which I coordinated last year. In 2018, Anusha, with the help of her parents, created a nonprofit called Blissful Us, which organizes events and programs dedicated to solving hunger and food insecurity. She was starting an online magazine for teen writing and art organized around the same theme called The Blissful Pursuit and asked for my help reaching teen writers across the state.

Anusha later told me about her plans to start a coding initiative called The Blissful Coding Club. Its mission is to raise STEM awareness in underrepresented communities and to encourage young children to become interested in computer science. “My goal is to expose these students to as many different opportunities as possible in hopes of them possibly pursuing the subjects in the future,” she says. “I found that there are not many free opportunities for young students in STEM and noticed that students from underrepresented areas are being left behind.”

READ: Coding Is a Literacy | Opinion

Anusha offered to run a virtual version of The Blissful Coding Club for NPL. Though I was just becoming acquainted with planning programs using Zoom, Anusha had already used it tutoring online for her local Girls Who Code Club during the previous school year. She learned how to code by using Scratch, the drag-and-drop program for young children. But once she became more interested in computer science, it was hard to find resources to deepen her learning. She ended up taking private lessons through paid summer camps, and is now versed in Java, Python, and HTML.

I am always excited when teens guide programming, because it usually ensures interest and engagement. In order to reach as many students as possible, Anusha recruited volunteers so that each young person who participated received individual attention. Her goal was for them to have at least a 5:1 ratio of instructor to student.

We promoted the program using email blasts in the library’s e-newsletter, reaching out to school contacts, social media, and teens who had participated in Girls Who Code and other library coding workshops from the past few years. The program was scheduled to begin after July 4, and, by the end of June, we’d received more than 50 registrations. We usually allow a maximum of about 18 participants for coding programs because of the size of our computer lab. Without concerns about transportation or physical space, and because many regular summer activities were cancelled, we had more than double the usual participation. We decided to cap the number at 50 to ensure small class sizes. 

With geography no longer an obstacle, I also discovered that we could recruit more volunteers than for past coding programs. With the help of her sister Avika, a student at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU), Anusha reached out to CMU computer science professor David Kosbie, who is also the cofounder and director of CMU CS Academy, a free, online computer programming curriculum for high school students. He was thrilled to help support the Blissful Coding Club, Anusha says.

Kosbie recruited 14 undergraduate computer science students to serve as volunteer instructors, leading six virtual sections of the club for the summer. Students in grades 4 through 7 learned to code using MIT’s Scratch, while those in grades 8 through12 used CMU CS Academy to learn Python. Each section met twice weekly for an hour and a half. Instructors used Google Classroom to post exercises for students to work on and submit work and held virtual office hours for those who needed extra help.

While not all the students could attend every session, participation remained steady for most of the summer. Anusha noted that a few students took classes on their phones, some didn't have working microphones, speakers, or the technology to share their screens. The instructors did their best to work around any technical limitations, allowing students to email or text screenshots of their code instead. By mid-summer, some students struggled with the loss of family members due to COVID-19, but still decided to continue with the club.

"It was sad to see some students go through the pain of the pandemic and technical limitations, but they stayed resilient and were still able to produce high quality projects,” says Anusha. “Despite it all, my team stuck true to our mission and got every student through it. This shows that there is hunger to learn, and eagerness to fight through any barriers to keep moving forward.”

Anusha is continuing Blissful Coding Club at Newark Public Library this fall, and some of CMU volunteers returned—not only as instructors but also to help direct and expand the program to serve more communities. They now have 26 volunteer instructors from CMU and the New Jersey Institute of Technology teaching 9 classes. For more infomation on Blissful Coding Club,  email info@blissfulus.org.

Maisy Card is a former teen services librarian at Newark Public Library and the author of the novel These Ghosts are Family , which is a finalist for the Center for Fiction's First Novel Prize. She is currently working on her second novel.

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