April 20, 2015 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

Originally published in April 2015 edition of Her Family.

As an academic researcher, I write a lot of code to organize data for my research,” Burch Kealey, a University of Nebraska-Omaha accounting professor, says. “I’m not a professional programmer but there is a tremendous amount of resources on the Internet for someone to learn this on their own.”

It’s not too remarkable that an accounting professor could easily pick up on writing code. What’s amazing is that Kealey is teaching coding to his 10-year-old son, Patrick, and a handful of neighborhood kids.

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“I had begun thinking of doing this when my son was about 4 or 5, but I didn’t feel like he was ready for it yet,” he says. “None of the materials I found online looked appropriate, and I wanted him to have appropriate material.”

A few years later, Kealey discovered a book called Python for Kids: A Playful Introduction to Programming authored by Jason R. Briggs. Serendipitously, a $60 computer called the Raspberry Pi was released around the same time.

“It’s about the size of a credit card and it’s a fully functioning computer. You just have to plug your monitor into it,” he explains. Another sign that the time was right to put his concept of coding classes for kids into play: the price of monitors had dropped to as little as $100, making it possible for middle-class parents to afford a basic set of hardware for a weekly class.

A year and a half in, the young students are learning increasingly advanced coding along with what Kealey calls “intellectual independence,” problem-solving, collaboration, and other important skills.

“I think, from watching Patrick and his friends, that many in our society don’t understand how capable children are,” Kealey says. “After being around these kids, I have no reservations about their capability. I was worried about their attention span, and that’s the reason we waited a bit to start. But they’re thinking, rational beings.”

Judging by the phone calls and emails he’s received, there’s a growing interest in this kind of instruction, he says.

“In some ways this is an experiment; I have no plans to open the Sylvan Children’s Computer Programming Centers,” he says, wryly. “I give parents advice who call me and ask me if I would run other classes, but I’m too busy being a dad and my day job keeps me busy enough.”

Kealey lets his students help drive class content, which has led to incorporating the wildly popular video game Minecraft along with an assistant.

“My son has tried to educate me on how to play Minecraft, but I don’t get it,” Kealey says. “I have a high school student (Ian Maher, a Central High School junior) who’s working with me and actually taking a strong lead in the class right now. This young man ‘gets’ Minecraft, plus he wanted to learn to program.”

Kealey emphasizes that the children in the class aren’t hand-picked child prodigies, but typical, intellectually curious kids.

“I think most kids can do it, they just need to be introduced to the possibilities it in a way that’s not too deadening,” he says, adding that the children he teaches enjoy breaking new ground. “They’re doing something that nobody else is doing; I can tell that they get a little thrill about it.”

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