Gearing up for tech and entrepreneur-focused summer camp series for kids – and more!

Eric EngelmannEducation, Imagination Iowa0 Comments

Gearing up for tech and entrepreneur-focused summer camp series for kids – and more!

At ISA’s Launch Day in November, we announced that in 2016 we’d be aggressively growing several of our programs, including tech training for kids through our Imagination Iowa initiative.

Until now, that has mostly consisted of twice-a-month, volunteer-led coding clubs called Coder Dojo. The dojos usually wind up with 20-75 kids, ages 5 to 17, learning the fundamentals of coding, app development, 3D printing, circuitry using the LittleBits electronics kits, and other topics. We’ve also run occasional events like a Global Cardboard Challenge, Google CS First classes, and more.

Dojo mentor Andrea Flemming leading a Scratch class

Dojo mentor Andrea Flemming leading a Scratch class

While that’s a pretty strong offering as it is, this year we’re aiming much, much higher.

Here’s what we’re up to in 2016:

Hosting First Lego League and Future City

We’ve been working for several months with the Iowa Innovation Learning Center (IILC), which has now officially closed, to provide a new home for some of their key programs. We’re now hosting a First Lego League team (that recently won third place at the state competition!) and a Future City team, providing physical space, equipment storage, and other support. We’re big believers in these programs because they give kids hands-on experience with engineering, teamwork, and leadership skills. We plan to offer additional support to these kinds of programs as we grow.

Launching a summer camp series focused on 21st-century skills

There is an amazing array of summer camp options in Cedar Rapids at Kirkwood, Summit Schools, and more. The IILC had run successful summer camps for several years, and we’ve agreed to build on that success. In a few weeks, we’ll publish a summer camp schedule focused on a particular set of topics, mostly STEAM-related (Science, Technology, Engineering, the Arts, and Math). But they’ll also emphasize the kinds of skills we’re seeing in our work with Iowa BIG and at Iowa Startup Accelerator like design thinking, entrepreneurship skills, and leadership techniques. We see these camps as uniquely focusing on 21st century skills and an important addition to the summer camp options parents have in the Corridor.

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Hiring a full-time Program Director

The programs we’ve run so far have been facilitated by ISA’s team, but most of the heavy lifting has been done by dozens of committed volunteers. In order to grow the program, it needs the dedicated attention of a full-time Program Director. We’re actively looking for the right person right now, so if you know someone – or it’s if you – get your application in ASAP. UPDATE 2/10/16: We hired Kristine Sorensen as our Education Director in February.

Fostering Statewide STEAM Programming

Creating a program in Cedar Rapids is one thing. Making it easy to replicate is another. We hope to build a series of bundled frameworks to make programs easy to replicate, perhaps with turnkey infrastructure for communities that don’t already have a Coder Dojo program or that want to grow similar programs but don’t want to start from scratch.

Coaching the Coaches

One thing we’re learning through our work so far: finding and building the coaches and mentors is the trickiest part. There are amazing volunteers who contribute time (and often, money) to see these programs succeed. But the ability to invest in those volunteer coaches – to help them be the best they can be – is unusual. In the startup world, the idea of simply getting people together who are passionate about a topic is an easy way to share critical learning so that the whole group gets better, faster. We did this recently with coworking leaders from around Iowa, and it was definitely a success in terms of making all of us better at leading coworking spaces. We’d like to do the same for Lego League leaders, Future City leaders, Coder Dojo facilitators, and other STEAM mentors by investing time and energy into them, directly, through training, peer-groups, and meetups.

Building out our Volunteer Network

Even with our staff, we will still depend on our amazing volunteers for the various programs to run effectively. We’re always looking for volunteers, so if you’re looking to get involved, email David Tominsky at david@iowastartupaccelerator.com, and let us know how you’d like to contribute. In 2016, we’re looking to grow our volunteer pool exponentially to 100 or more dedicated to our kids & teen programming.

Mentor Travis Hamot (front left) leading a Minecraft modding session.

Mentor Travis Hamot (front left) leading a Minecraft modding session.

Emphasizing Teen Coding Programs

We’re doing our first teen coding event, this one specifically for girls, called Iowa Girls Code Camp, led by a volunteer team of female computer science and engineering majors on February 27th. If it works as well as we think it will, we’ll follow that with similar programs aimed at older kids interested in code, including some that are more advanced for teens with some coding experience who want to get deep into compsci topics.

Working with school districts to offer more and better technical classes

We’ve already done a number of introductory projects with the local school districts, such as facilitating Hour of Code lessons for around 750 elementary school children a few weeks ago. We think that there’s a lot of room to collaborate with school districts across the state of Iowa to incorporate more and more advanced, STEAM-based coursework and programs.

That’s a pretty audacious list of stuff to do, but we’re game. Building Iowa’s tech community is a key part of our mission, so we’re aiming big.

Anything we missed? Ideas? Let us know!

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