It began with a "small world" coincidental connection.

Michelle Martin, a teacher at Prairie Creek Community School, said she had been trying to enroll her son in a CoderDojo computer programming club event in the Twin Cities.

During one of the club's meetings, Martin struck up a conversation with one of the organizers and he happened to mention that there was someone in Northfield who was attempting to start a local chapter.

That person was Eileen King, a St. Olaf College graduate who Martin had sat next to at a workshop the both had attended. 

The two connected again and Martin said that was when things started to move fast.

"Eileen had a group of St. Olaf students willing to volunteer their time and I went to an organizational meeting. Within a month and a half, Eileen had secured a location at Arcadia Charter School, organized an Eventbrite page for attendees and had figured out how to get mentors that met the criteria," she said. "We scheduled the first event and I couldn't believe how quickly it came together."

Beginnings

Founded in Ireland, CoderDojo is described as "a global movement of free, volunteer-led and community based programming clubs for young people between the age of 7 and 17. They learn how to code, develop websites, apps, programs, games and explore technology in an informal and creative environment."

CoderDojo first arrived in the Twin Cities area in 2013, and the Northfield branch first started meeting in February 2015.

Following their first gathering in February, the Northfield CoderDojo meets monthly at Arcadia Charter School — its next meeting is Aug. 29.

King, currently a teacher in Minneapolis, said that finding a space in Northfield that could accommodate a larger group and had computers available was the most challenging part of the organizational process. 

"Neither college has a public lab that they could set up for strangers," she said. "Some Dojos run on a 'bring your own computer' basis, but we wanted to open it to everyone."

King said the first meeting was the largest in attendance, but that subsequent gatherings see around 12 to 15 participants.

"We're ready to see that grow," she said.

The organizers have used a number of ways to try to build the profile of the Northfield CoderDojo, including fliers posted around the community, word of mouth, a website and social media presence, as well as reaching out to teachers in the area to invite students to attend.

Development

Both King and Martin said that through CoderDojo, they've seen a lot of growth in the regular students who participate — both in their proficiency at the skill, as well as personal growth. 

"With coding, even if you don't go into computer science, it provides a lot of great critical thinking skills," Martin said. "When you code, failure just means that you are gathering information. Things never go right the first time when you run a program. And as you tinker with it and fix it, you figure out a better way. It's a great analogy for learning."

King said that it's a way for young people to learn how to manage their emotions.

"They've worked on how to handle frustrating situations and stick something out, rather than just giving up," she aid. "Kids that wanted to quit completely are now offering suggestions to new students on how they can deal with frustrations."

King said that CoderDojo as a whole is meeting a national need and that the Northfield branch is meeting that need on the local level.

"I think it's important that young people see themselves as being able to make something on their own with technology," she said. "We've had a fantastic reception to the first few events we did. We figured that there was a need and demand for it. The kids also seem to enjoy it."

Prairie Creek student Connor Eyestone started participating in the Northfield CoderDojo after learning about it from his Lego robotics league coach.

His mother Heidi said that so far, Connor has learned to use a drag and drop coding program called Scratch.

He's used that to create forever blocks (which repeat infinitely), wait-until blocks, variables, if-else blocks and messages of code.

Connor said that he continues to participate because of "really fun and awesome people" who share problem-solving skills and ideas and that he continues to learn new things each month.

Another Prairie Creek student, Sophie Setchell, also enjoyed working with the Scratch program. Setchell said that coding was something she enjoyed doing at school and in her own time at home.

Her mother, Shari, said that she felt the monthly meetings are another great activity for youth in Northfield.

"As a young woman, it's great that she is developing this skill," she said. "it's also nice that she is learning to code in a social environment."

Martin said that it was important that they made sure the CoderDojo atmosphere "didn't feel like school."

The next meeting for the Northfield club is on Aug. 29. Both King and Martin said that because there are no expenses associated with the meetings, they see it continuing into the foreseeable future as long as there is interest from the youth.

Kevin Krein covers arts and entertainment, non-profits, community events and people, and matters relating to Rice County and the surrounding townships for the Northfield News and the Faribault Daily News. You can reach him at 507-645-1106, or follow him on Twitter: @NfldNewsKevin. 

Kevin Krein covers arts and entertainment, non-profits, community events and people, and matters relating to Rice County and the surrounding townships for the Northfield News and the Faribault Daily News.

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