April 15, 2019

Code Night, Collaboration, & The Joy of Solving Big Problems

Students share their work with each other at April Code Night @ Looker HQ

This last Friday we hosted our 2nd Code Night at Looker HQ. While last time was a lot of fun, we wanted this Code Night to be even better. We observed that some students got stuck because they didn’t know what to make – kind of like writer’s block. To help tackle this issue during our summer code camp, we always have a theme and a project of the day for students. We just had Spring Code Camp last week and nearly 70% of students submitted a project of the day, every single day of the week. The theme gave them a clear idea of what was possible and how they might be able to achieve it, as well as a creative constraint.

For Code Night, we decided on a logo challenge and the Looker team made the challenge even better by putting up some prizes for a raffle. We expected experienced students to program animations, detailed illustrations, or possibly something interactive. Beginner students used color and simple shapes to create images. When students arrived for Code Night – we had a mix of 2nd – 8th graders. Some were experienced but most were still just getting started. Below are just a few of our favorite logos from the night. Code Naturally students are always looking for a challenge!

A simple minecraft logo made in the beginner version of the codenaturally app

One of our advanced students constrained himself to using only ellipses and lines to make this looker logo

Watching the students tackle the Challenge of the Day and help each other never ceases to amaze me. I didn’t have access to computer science or coding growing up and it’s great to see students doing the same thing that I was doing at UCSC, but better. We’re grateful to be able to give kids an opportunity to experience coding from an early age so they can better understand the role that it plays in our world and what it can do for them. It’s a point of pride for us to teach students as young as 2nd and 3rd grade the same curriculum that college students learn when they start taking programming courses. Regardless of your age, everyone has to start with the basics and work their way up to tackle more complex concepts.

A big shout out to Looker for supporting us and providing such a fantastic venue for young programmers to learn, enjoy pizza, and make friends! Watching the students collaborate, plan, and bring their ideas to life got me thinking about all of the skills that students pick up during the process of programming something.

Greg getting coding on his Nintendo switch logo! It took him 2 minutes to decide what he was going to make this Code Night!

What ever it is that they decide to code – it’s their idea. They have an intention and are limited to the functions they’ve learned to relay that intention to the computer. As they work, they run into unexpected problems, try work-arounds, and ultimately make a lot of mistakes along the way.

Eventually, they might get their code to run and see the fruits of their labor light up on the left-hand side of the screen. If they don’t have any bugs, they’ve checked all their parenthesis and added all their semi-colons, they get to enjoy what they made! Whether it’s an illustration made out of simple points plotted on the screen or an elaborate game that makes use of variables, functions, loops, and conditional statements – the look on the students’ faces is almost always the same.

Every day that I work with students, I get to see this face over and over again. Of course, it doesn’t come without a lot of hard work and frustration along the way. Students learn grit as they try every possible option they can think of, scan their code for any minor typo, and try to learn hard concepts with the help of educators and friends. Students learn that they have to be patient with themselves and their code. Big ideas take a lot of work and time and there aren’t any short cuts.

Once they understand this, they get that it’s not that the “computer isn’t working” or that the “app is broken” but that they’ve made a mistake in communicating and have to work backwards to figure out where they slipped up. It’s great to see this become like a game for our advance students. They’ll raise their hands for help while still trying to figure out the problem and as they’re explaining it – EUREKA! They got it, they don’t need help, they just want to focus on trying out their solution to see if it’s going to work. Maybe they’ll raise their hand to proudly show you their work or maybe their code doesn’t run and they need help figuring out next steps. Regardless, it makes us proud to see them solve problems for the sake of bringing their ideas to life through writing code.

This last week, there was huge news in the paper about another fantastic problem solver and programmer. The first ever photo of a black hole was taken thanks to a team of fantastic researchers, engineers and computer scientists. This is something that was once thought to be impossible and is big news in the Astronomy and Physics worlds.

It’s important our students to learn about breakthroughs like these because they remind us that there is always more for us to learn, discover, and create. Here’s a picture of Katie Bouman making that familiar face of excitement we see whenever one of our students wins a battle with a big problem they’re facing.

Computer scientist Katie Bouman, still a graduate student at MIT, led the development of the algorithm that made it possible to create the first image ever of a black hole. Bouman shared this photo on Facebook of herself reacting as the historical picture was processing.

The algorithm, which Bouman named CHIRP (Continuous High-resolution Image Reconstruction using Patch priors) was needed to combine data from the eight radio telescopes around the world working under Event Horizon Telescope (the international collaboration that captured the black hole image) and turn them into a cohesive image.

A little over a year ago, Katie gave a TED talk explaining how we could photograph black hole, foreshadowing the work of the whole team working on this project. It’s about 13 minutes and explains the basic physics of how black holes work, how we detect them, and what we’d need to do to photograph one. She explains that to take a picture of a black hole, all we’d need is an Earth-sized telescope. While our students would absolutely love this idea – I’m sure some would even volunteer to help build it, I don’t think we’ll be able to get the funding to make it possible. Luckily, the Event Horizon Telescope project has us covered.

An array of telescopes that work together to gather data for the Event Horizon project

All of these telescopes record data and share it with each other as the Earth rotates. Katie and her team are responsible for writing code to sort through this data and use it in order to produce an image. She gives an overview of how her algorithm works and uses a fantastic analogy of a puzzle to help the listener better understand how such an image as the one below are possible.

A picture of the black hole – click here for source

My favorite thing about Katie’s talk is that she highlights the fact that she doesn’t have a background in astrophysics. She relies on the team of awesome researchers and educators that she collaborates with same way that they rely on her to manipulate the data they collect.

This is something that should be emphasized to all students. Great things are possible when you work together and delegate. You don’t need to be great at everything, you need to find what you love, and a team of people that can help to fill in the other gaps.

Collaboration is becoming an prerequisite skill at high performing workplaces and as you can see, it’s for a good reason. Not only is working with other people more enjoyable, it makes it easier to see tough tasks through and ultimately leads to a better output. Check out what a Stanford study from a few years ago found about collaboration:

Participants in the research who were primed to act collaboratively stuck at their task 64% longer than their solitary peers, whilst also reporting higher engagement levels, lower fatigue levels and a higher success rate. What’s more, this impact persisted for several weeks.

“The results showed that simply feeling like you’re part of a team of people working on a task makes people more motivated as they take on challenges,” the researchers say.

During our camps and programs students are encouraged to work together on large projects and lend a helping hand when a neighbor gets stuck. The level of empathy that students have for each other and the amount of times we hear “I got stuck on that too!” is more than we can count. As Mackenzie mentioned in our previous post, it’s great to have beginner and advanced students together. It helps the students that are just getting the hang of coding because it gives them a sense of where they’ll be one day. For our advanced students, it keeps them grounded and reminds them that they still have a long way to go and plenty to learn.

All in all, its awesome work with students in a capacity where I see them come up with big ideas and pursue them with a passion! Students have what it takes to focus in and learn the big concepts necessary for that one project they really want to make, even if it means starting on something easier and working their way up.

I’m happy that I get to play a role in showing students that it’s accessible and easy for them to learn if they’re willing to put in a little hard work. 🙂

Thanks for reading & have an excellent day,

Sukh Singh


We just wrapped up our Spring Code Camp and are getting ready to kick off Summer Code Camp right here in Santa Cruz! Summer Code Camp will take place at Brook Knoll School in-between Santa Cruz and Scotts Valley. It’s conveniently located for families in Boulder Creek or Ben Lemond as well as Santa Cruz or Soquel. Summer camp is in two 3-week blocks and you can sign up for 1 or more weeks in ether block.

Some themes are already up on the website but we have a huge array of engineering, STEM, and offline activities planned for students – this Summer is going to be one that your child will always look back on with excitement! Click here to learn more and let me know if we can answer any question.

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