8th Light volunteers with education-based non-profit to teach young students about software programming and robotics.

9 Dots is an extracurricular enrichment program whose primary focus is to improve the science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) programs available to students in underserved school districts. The nonprofit organization was founded in 2011 by three engineers who graduated from Stanford University and weren’t encouraged by what they saw in the workplace. “We felt that, if you look at the tech world, the demographics are not very diverse,” said Josh Taylor, one of 9 Dots’ three founders. They traced this problem back to a disparity in the quality and diversity of academic programs that falls along economic lines. “We started a non-profit to tackle this social justice issue. We wanted to make sure all kids were given the opportunity to succeed in these [STEM] fields.”

The three founders—Josh, a computer scientist; Kristen Taylor, an earth systems engineer; and Melissa Chen, a mechanical engineer—left jobs in their respective fields and created 9 Dots. They named the non-profit education company after a puzzle that is common in elementary and middle schools. “The idea is that you need to connect the nine dots with four lines without lifting your pen,” Josh explained. “And to solve that puzzle, you need to think outside the box. We try to teach students to become critical thinkers and creative thinkers and problem solvers.”

9 Dots’ goal is to cultivate the same passion in students that the founders all felt for STEM projects when they were younger. They distilled their mission into a two-pronged approach: They provide academic support to build confidence and competency in their students, and they curate fun projects that help develop passion for applying STEM skills in neat and practical ways. They reached out to nearby Title I schools, and started their program with 20 students in a single classroom.

Now in its fourth year, 9 Dots has grown from a single classroom to serve seven schools in the Hollywood area, with 120 students enrolled in their after school program and 250 benefitting from a Get Coding initiative that supports schools and teachers as they offer more software coding classes. Throughout their after-school and summer programs, the organization curates a year-long curriculum that they divide into four-week units to achieve a balance of breadth and depth on a wide range of STEM topics—each of them another opportunity to inspire more students.

“I like coming to 9 Dots because it helps me with my homework when I’m in school, and it also helps me learn new things,” said Alondra, a 9th grade student. “It’s like a new experience for me.”

The original three founders are heavily involved in creating and implementing lesson plans for each of their students, but they rely on a small team of part-time workers and volunteers for help reaching every individual student. One of their calls for volunteers caught the attention of a software consultancy that had recently opened an office in the area, 8th Light.

Meeting 8th Light

8th Light is a software consultancy that is dedicated to continual teaching and learning. Their team of software craftsmen and apprentices are eager to share their knowledge with others, and Dave Moore, 8th Light’s Director of Software Services in Los Angeles, jumped at the opportunity to assist with 9 Dots’ educational initiatives.

“We went in after work and after the kids’ school to help them through projects. Some were code-related, some weren’t,” Moore explained. “Eventually, I started prodding for ways to become more involved. I reached out to Josh, and the Sphero workshop idea was born.”

Sphero Workshop

Computer programming languages are an uncommon mixture of mathematics and language. They are a study in linguistic compromises that allow humans and machines to make sense of each other. Unlike other second languages commonly taught in schools, like Spanish or French, the noticeable differences between English and programming languages, like Ruby or JavaScript, are just the tip of the iceberg. Differences in syntax are superficial symptoms of larger inconsistencies between communication and computational logic, and these fundamental differences require developers to inhabit an entirely different mindset when sitting at a keyboard.

It’s a lot for anybody to learn at once.

One way that 9 Dots has reduced the barrier to entry for young developers is by using an open source tool called Blockly. Blockly is a library supported by Google Developers that helps educators build visual programming editors. Instead of asking students to type numbers and letters onto a black screen and make the leap from communication to computation all at once, 9 Dots’ instructors develop interfaces wherein students click and drag their code snippets into place. The snippets appear as blocks whose shapes offer insights into their function—`if` statements lock around the methods and variables that are dependent on them, for example. It is a simpler way to write code, and the interactive visual cues reinforce the underlying logic that developers need to write software.

“I definitely think that—because it’s something in the world that’s moving around because you’re controlling it—it’s a little more interesting than changing some characters in your Terminal,” said Zach Olauson, a software craftsman at 8th Light who volunteered alongside Moore. “That’s kind of how I learned, just playing around in the Terminal. But being able to actually move something around and get that instant feedback of, ‘Hey, I just changed this variable and now this thing is moving twice as fast’—that’s pretty awesome.”

“The fun is that you get to learn a lot about things that you never learned anything about,” said Kristina, a 6th grade student. “You get to do things you never did before on a computer.”

Moore and Olauson used Blockly to build an application that allows students to program robotic Sphero balls by inputting changes in velocity and direction.

“You could tell ... the first couple runs they go *pew*, just 500 miles an hour in a single direction,” Moore said. “And you’d see it, and they’d tighten it and calibrate…”

“That was pretty hard, actually,” said Melissa, a 9th grade student. “We would put a number in, and it would sometimes go too short, or sometimes it went too long, too fast.”

“I was amazed with the ball,” added Charles, a 6th grade student. “It was very fun and entertaining. It gave you the chance to tell which way to turn the ball, and when not to.”

“When I first saw it, I was like, oh my god, this is so complicated, this is worse than Sudoku or something,” Melissa said. “But then after the lesson I was like, oh my god, what am I thinking? This is so simple.”

Whether as a result of luck or preparation, some students were able to pick it up immediately. “There was one group that did it the first time, and I was like, ‘Well, I guess we’re done now, because you just did what you were supposed to do,” Olauson said, laughing.

“The kids really loved it,” Josh said. “They couldn’t wait for the robotics portion of the camp. They couldn’t wait for 8th Light to arrive. It was really great.”

Building for the future

“The software industry is at a point right now where there’s a shortage of people who know these technical skills and how to actually build applications,” Moore said. “I started [learning to code] when I was a freshman in high school, and for people around my age, that’s pretty early. Now we have kids starting as early as elementary school. I can only imagine how good these guys and girls are going to be when they’re my age.”

With encouragement from the 9 Dots program, young students are seeing these new opportunities for themselves.

“Now, after 9 Dots, I think I would [consider a career as a computer programmer],” Melissa said.

Charles is considering a career in computer science as well. “It seems interesting, and I could be a big person if I keep on,” he said. “I know I’m gonna be someone big when I grow up … Overall, I feel very proud of myself.”

Other students’ minds aren’t made up yet. “I’m deciding between that or a doctor,” Kristina said.

These difficult decisions are a testament to 9 Dots’ ability to engage students academically, as well as their commitment to providing an array of different projects that can pique students’ interests and stimulate their creativity.

“When you’re teaching programming and engineering, every student reacts to different contexts differently,” Josh said. “The more we can put in front of a student, the more opportunity they’ll have something they can fall in love with. And 8th Light helped us do that.”

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