Youth teaching team brings programming to area students

Teens as Teachers designer and programming whiz, Caroline Combemale talks about how she got started teaching Scratch to fellow kids.

Scratch is a simplified computer programming language I use to teach students the basics of computer programming. Developed at MIT’s Media Lab, Scratch is a wonderful learning platform that enables people to create almost anything they can imagine. I first learned how to use Scratch when I was eight years old, after my technology teacher introduced me to it, and I instantly fell in love with the countless opportunities that Scratch offers. At eleven, I met Nina Marie Barbuto, Executive Director and Founder of Assemble, who offered me an internship teaching Scratch at Assemble and during Sci-Tech days.

In May of 2013, I visited Allegheny Valley Junior-Senior High School to introduce the students to Scratch, where I met a very dedicated 8th grader named Matt Kern. Matt learned Scratch prior to attending my class and was very interested in learning new skills. Matt struck me as a very intelligent, motivated and inspirational student—exactly the type of student who needs the opportunity to teach.

I’ve taught at various community centers and schools, but perhaps my most memorable experiences have been during the Carnegie Science Center’s SciTech Days, which occur twice a year, during November and March. I first taught at the event in the fall of 2012, and have instructed at every SciTech Days since. I invited Matt, now a freshman in high school, to help me teach during one of the middle school SciTech Days in November of 2013. Matt was a great help and really enjoyed the experience, and teaching with me showed him that he was capable of creating his own Scratch class—which he did. Matt was very enthusiastic and immediately took the initiative to set up an after-school Scratch program at his district’s elementary school.

Caroline and co-teacher, Matt Kern

Caroline and co-teacher, Matt Kern

“After helping teach Scratch at SciTech, I realized how much I enjoyed it and it reminded me of all of the great students in my own community who had no way of learning about programming,” said Matt. “I like Scratch because it’s easy to create visually complex programs with a lot less code [than other programs]”.

Although his father sparked his interest in technology early on, Matt was first introduced to Scratch in the 7th grade. “My teacher, Mrs. Mellon, told me about Scratch and I started using it at home just for fun,” Matt said. “I realize that I am blessed with a great dad who is willing to work with me, but at the same time I understand that there are a number of kids who are not blessed in the same way and have no way of learning about programming. I wanted to give them the same chance I had because if I was in their situation I may never have realized how fun it is to program.”

Matt’s after-school program has attracted 14 elementary school students from Colfax Upper-Elementary. With all of the support from Assemble and his teachers, he was able to create a successful program at his former elementary school.

“Mrs. Lagattuta helped me and she really cares for the students and was always willing to help in any way that she could. If I did not have her, the class definitely would not have been as successful as it was,” said Matt. “Also, something I have learned from Mrs. Mellon is to always keep everything in perspective and remain calm. Nothing is ever going to run smoothly the first time and you just have to be ready for it and not overreact.”

Matt developed his own curriculum, which he said was a challenge: “It would have been easier for me if I had lessons that were already planned out and that is something I believe would be nice to see in the future.” He also supported the idea of professional development to help students create their own programs like his. “I believe that professional advice would help a number of students get started because it can be confusing to figure out who to talk to about starting a program or how to go about it.”

All of this has inspired me to develop a program called “Teens as Teachers” at Assemble, for teens like Matt who are eager to share their skills and talents. Teens as Teachers is a series of six workshops to assist students with creating their own programs in their schools and communities. Experts and teen mentors share their ideas and experience on curriculum creation, program development and effective teaching methods. These skills help students develop various programs based on the their interests, skills and passions. We’ll begin the Teens as Teachers workshops at Assemble in late April and continue through May, so if you’d like to learn more, check out for updates.

Published April 24, 2014