Middle School Kids Program Mini Self-Driving Cars at Coding Camp

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Scott Ball / Rivard Report

Eva Jimenez, 13, sets up her course during the Youth Code Jam at Palo Alto College.

Eva Jimenez programmed a self-driving car this week. Although the vehicle was just a miniature autonomous car, consider that she’s only 13 years old.

Eva, who will be attending eighth grade at Somerset Junior High School in Von Ormy this school year, was among more than a hundred kids entering sixth through eighth grades this summer to take part in Palo Alto College’s free coding camp in partnership with local nonprofit Youth Code Jam.

The Alamo Colleges District institution held a demonstration for parents Friday, showing off camp participants’ newfound programming skills in the Python coding language.

Eva and her brother Ignacio were developing a video game just a week prior, but Eva is passionate about robotics and other physical programming disciplines. She said it was cool to see her code come to life with the mini self-driving car.

“It’s not like a remote control car,” she said. “You’re actually telling the car what to do. You can basically do anything you want.”

Like actual autonomous cars, the miniature vehicles had cameras attached to them to detect objects in its path. The camp participants used a programming library with preloaded functions. For example, instructing the car to move forward required a line of code with the templated coding language.

“You can do a lot of things with coding, and I think it’s just super fun to learn computer science,” Eva said.

In the two-week, half-day camps, students explored such concepts as machine learning, data science, and artificial intelligence. Youth Code Jam helps develop and instruct hands-on activities for students age 7 to 17 to learn coding. The organization also helps with professional development to help educators teach computer science.

Its programs are underwritten by businesses such as Rackspace and Google Fiber. A grant from the Texas Workforce Commission made it possible for Youth Code Jam to offer the program at Palo Alto College for free. It’s the third year the nonprofit has provided programming at the college. This summer, about 500 students participated in Youth Code Jam camps citywide, founding Executive Director Debi Pfitzenmaier said.

“Those types of generous support make it possible to ensure that we’re reaching a really diverse group of students who don’t have other opportunities to attend these types of experience and get really inspired about it,” Pfitzenmaier said.

Working with self-driving miniature cars and other tangible objects allows children in the middle school age group to become more engaged and connect with the computer science curriculum, said Erron Gonzalez, academic program coordinator at Palo Alto College.

“Having something they can put their hands on works out a whole lot better than just sitting in front of a computer,” Gonzales said.

That includes Bianca Murray’s 12-year-old twin boys, Kane and Liam, who became fascinated with the donuts they could program their miniature self-driving cars to do, as well as the speed at which they could instruct it to go.

“It’s neat for them,” Murray said. “It’s a different world than I lived in.”

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