It seems to me that, recently, there’s been a slew of opportunities in the "tech industry" to volunteer time and resources to those who are not in the "tech industry." I put that term in quotation marks because it is very broad and, likely, not a term that those in the industry would use. What I mean by "tech industry" is those individuals and companies that make a living creating and supporting computer-based artifacts, such as hardware, networking, and software. Here at Skookum, we make custom software. As such, our offices are chock full of people who have spent their lives, both in and out of the office, either programming or understanding how software can improve a business domain. We’re lucky in that respect.
Technology is very obviously the present and future. We are all users of it, for good or bad. My daughter can do things on social media that I don’t understand with just a few swipes, pics, and eye rolls (to be fair, I don’t think the eye rolls have anything to do with what she is doing, but they are always there when I am watching). It’s easy to be a consumer of technology, but harder to be a steward and creator of it. If you read anything about the future of technology jobs, they often say things like:
In 10 years, there will be 1,987,322,123 unfilled programming jobs in the US alone. Also, humans will serve robot overlords.
OK, someone should probably fact check my research, but we all know that the sooner we get kids into programming, the more likely they are to make a career out of it. Also, I am of the opinion that many tasks that are super-technical today will be second nature in the future. Writing a Slackbot, for example, will be akin to setting your VCR clock (and yes, I realize that I am dating myself with that reference).
For me, the urgency to get kids into programming is compounded by the fact that I have several. I need my kids to at least be exposed to what I do, as I am convinced it will help them take care of me when I am old and leaking memory.
So, I set out to do something about it, be it ever so small. I planned a field trip for one of my daughter’s class to the offices of Skookum in Charlotte. OK, so truth be told, the idea was planted in my head by the teacher in that class, Ms. Christy, during a parent-teacher conference. I had just agreed to swing by and spend an hour in the class during the Hour of Code week and she basically asked me to up the ante. "Does your company do field trips?" I replied, sheepishly, "Erm, I dunno. Lemme ask."
So, I asked. Which is Step 1 in my Foolproof Instructions on Planning a Field Trip to Your Office. This post is my thoughts and learnings so you can plan one, too. I promise, you won’t regret it.
Step 1: Ask
I know, I already kind of covered this step. But, let’s flush it out a bit more. There are multiple "asks" involved in this process. Ask #1 is asking your superiors/bosses/co-workers/other nerds if they are on board with hosting a field trip. This is one of the (many) great things about working at Skookum. The answer was a resounding "YES!" Skookum does a fair amount to support technical learning (see Tech Talent South and Nightshift as two wonderful examples ), so this was an easy sell.
Ask #2 was what Ms. Christy did: she asked me. However, I could’ve (and should’ve) asked her. Do you have kids? Or does a co-worker? If so, go and ask a teacher if they would be interested in coming to your office for a field trip. If you don’t have kids, just go to a school nearby. In my experience, schools are chomping at the bytes for this kind of chance. You will be well received.
Step 2: Create an Agenda
Once I had agreed to host a field trip, I got a bit nervous. What am I going to do with 27 kids? How can I make this worth their while? Which one of my kids classes was this? Idle children are an imp factory. I pictured me, covered in silly string, being berated by 26 kids, my daughter sitting ashamedly in the corner, while other Skookum employees are running around and putting out literal fires.
I had to calm down. I started talking to other Skookumites about it, and they had some great ideas:
- "Well, first, we’ll do a quick office tour."
- "You should feed them. Get pizza. Kids love pizza."
- "Don’t buy them any silly string. Duh."
OK, those were the low-hanging fruit of ideas, but it calmed me down and got my agenda started. I asked myself, "What do I want the kids to get out of this trip?" and the answers came easily:
- I want the kids to have fun.
- I want the kids to see a real office that isn’t boring.
- I want the kids to learn something about technology.
- I want the kids to be inspired.
With these four goals, I set out an agenda. First things first: split them up. Doing hours of activity with 27 kids is a recipe for disaster, not to mention you won’t be able to connect with them in any meaningful way. Splitting up the kids meant that we would need stations where activities are happening. I decided that 5 stations would do the trick, but what would the activities be? This is where the Internet has your back.
Turns out, there are other folks in the world that want kids to learn technology, too. Here are just a few examples:
- Code.org – Code.org sponsors the Hour of Code, among other things. The Code.org site has videos on how to teach kids of all levels, along with activities to use. It is an incredible site.
- CS Unplugged.org – CS Unplugged is another wonderful site with loads of activities to perform with kids. Teach Binary, sorting algorithms, image representation, and much, much more. Plus, there is a book you can buy to support their efforts, which I recommend you give to the class when they leave.
- Hello Ruby Book – I am a Ruby programmer, so the Hello Ruby book was on my radar. It is a great book for elementary kids, complete with activities the kids can do. Also, it’s another potential gift to the visiting class. The point is, there are many books out there to teach kids programming. Find one and use it.
- Google for Education – Google has a ton of resources to teach programming. This site is really, really incredible.
- Your Co-workers. Technical people are smart, so asking your co-workers about stations may uncover some great options. In my case, it resulted in the station the kids loved the most.
After just a bit of research, I now had WAY more activities than I needed. The hard part was paring them down. Here are the ones I choose:
- Code with BB-8. Make BB-8 perform tasks with a Scratch like interface.
- Mac in the Box. This game was one a co-worker, Evan Booth, suggested. Evan brought in a bunch of different items, including a Jack in the Box and a small flag. The kids have to design a Rube Goldberg-type machine where they crank the Jack in the Box and it triggers a chain reaction that knocks over the flag. The kids LOVED this station.
- Design Your Own Game. From the Hello Ruby book, the kids are given a game board and they have to come up with the rules.
- Binary Numbers – From CS Unplugged, teach the kids binary with cards. Each kid is a bit.
- Make Your Own Computer – Also from the Hello Ruby book, the kids craft their own computer.
Whew! I felt pretty good about these stations. In the end, this was what my agenda looked like:
- Arrive at 10:30-10:45
- Skookum Office Tour
- Two stations 10:30 – 11:30
- Lunch (pizza, provided by Skookum) (30 min) (Cafe)
- Three stations (1.5 hours)
- Wrap up back in Cafe
- Markers/pens/pencils (Teacher/Glenn)
- Scissors (Teacher)
- Glue/tape (Teacher/Glenn)
- Stickers (Teacher/Glenn) ~200
- Print outs for any activities that need them
- Lunch – pizza (Ask about any diet issues)
With the agenda ready, it was time to get feedback.
Step 3: Buy In
Given that my super-awesome agenda had 5 stations, there was no way I could handle this field trip alone. I would need help, so I put on my marketing hat (which is not very impressive because I am a programmer). At Skookum, we have a company lunch every other Friday, so I asked to be on the agenda for the next one. I made a small slide deck explaining what we were doing, why we were doing it, and how they could help. Once my fellow co-workers had eaten and were in a mild food coma, I went through the deck.
The presentation went well, as I was able to get enough folks to cover the stations. Also, we have an employee named Chris Howie who was put on this earth to give tours. Watching Chris give a tour is what I imagine it must’ve felt like to watch Michelangelo paint the Sistine Chapel. He is an artist and an entertainer. Katie, our Office Everything, agreed to help me organize by ordering the pizzas and making sure our stations all had a place to be. Skookum was in.
Getting buy in from Ms. Christy was considerably easier. She loved the idea of stations and was thrilled we were willing to cover lunch. Again, these schools are so appreciative of this kind of thing, so they were in from the get go. She told me that they’d take the city bus (an added bonus experience for the kids) and I’d meet them at the bus stop.
Step 4: Prep
It’s a good idea, at this point, to go through your stations and make sure you have all the supplies. As I mentioned, Ms. Christy said they had plenty of craft supplies, like markers, scissors, etc. Some of our stations required that we print out game boards or other items needed to complete the craft, so we did that.
I then worked with Katie to reserve conferences rooms and the "cafe" for that day. Also, I wanted to give the class a couple of copies of the Hello Ruby book, so she got those ordered. Lastly, I double-checked with Ms. Christy that pizza would work for all the kids, and Katie setup the lunch order. Katie, by the way, is the best.
Lastly, I went to each of my "station leaders" and walked through their respective station. This way, I was sure they knew what to do and could start thinking about how to do it.
Planning complete; now we wait for the big day itself.
Step 4: Execution
The day itself went off without a hitch. The kids arrived on the city bus and followed me into our office. Leading them around the city and to Skookum was great, as everything is exciting to them. "Wow! These buildings are huge!""We get to ride the elevator!" "You’re on the TOP FLOOR!". I bet that if I found an unfrozen caveman and walked the same route, I’d get a similar response. Sometimes, as adults, we forget how incredible the hustle and bustle of life can be.
Once in the office, Chris took over and gave the kids a great tour. We have silly robot signs and a kitchen with "sodas and chips!!" and our office looks down onto a building where Michael Jordan and Cam Newton live. This was probably one of the most exciting aspects of the day for the kids: looking down on Jordan and Cam.
With the tour over, we split the kids into 5 groups and started them each at a station. Each station lasted 25 minutes, which is just about perfect. The only station that sometimes went over was Mac in the Box, as the kids tried to knock over the flag with increasingly complicated setups.
After 2 stations, we broke for lunch and ate pizza in the cafe. As they ate, I asked them various pieces of trivia:
"What was the first computer called?" (ENIAC)
"What does ‘Wifi’ stand for?" (Wifi, trick question)
"Do any of you have silly string?" (NO).
Then we split back up into the groups and finished the last three stations. The pictures really say it all.
With all stations complete, we met back in the cafe and talked briefly about what we learned. The kids were so bright and they absorbed the stations like a sponge. I gave Ms. Christy her copies of Hello Ruby and walked them back to the bus stop.
When Ms. Christy asked me about a field trip, I had no idea how incredible the experience would be. The kids loved it, but I think I got the most out of it. About a week after the trip, we received a pile of thank you cards from the kids. Here are a few excerpts from the cards:
- "Thank you for teaching me about computers, binary, and how to create digital games."
- "See you in 0000111 years!" (This child is going to work here in 7 years! :))
- "I really liked programming BB-8 and R2D2."
- "Thanks for telling us where Cam Newton lives"
If you really want to feel like your place of work is cool, get a pile of thank you cards from children about it. We’ve framed a few of them and put them around the office. I am already planning another trip for a different class.
OK, now it’s your turn. Take my plan, make it better, and invite a class to your office for a field trip. You’ll be helping kids learn about ways of the future, inspiring them, and having a great time in the process. Plus, your work in this area may earn you the good will of our future robot overlords.