Programming the future

By Kirsten Swann

There are plenty of books in Virginia McClure’s office at the Mountain View Branch Library, but stacked neatly on a side table, there’s also a bright orange coding kit and a Raspberry Pi in a little white box.

The orange box, produced by London-based Kano Computing, contains the parts necessary for a 6-year-old to put together a rudimentary computer. The white box, also developed in the UK, is targeted toward a slightly more experienced demographic. They’re part of the library’s push to create a public space for technology education for Alaskans of all ages – starting with the youngest.

“This is my thought: Let’s build a love of technology amongst kids now, and then see where that goes, see where they take it,” said McClure, who moved to Alaska to become the Mountain View branch manager this summer.

She hopes encouraging opportunities for innovation in the neighborhood will one day help build Anchorage into a hi-tech hub.

“Why should Iceland and Ireland have all the technology companies?” she said.

At the neighborhood library, expanding tech opportunities starts with a new series of youth activities debuting this January. McClure said she’d like to see that grow to include tech opportunities for adults, possibly some kind of maker space and a coding class or club like the internationally popular Coder Dojo. The program, founded in Ireland in 2011, is free for teen members and organized by adult volunteers. It now encompasses more than 500 clubs in 50 countries worldwide. There are none in Alaska.

But Rebecca Graham, who heads up youth services and activities at the Mountain View library, said she’s seen the interest among local teens.

“I have kids who have requested every coding book – I mean, middle schoolers spend their summers looking at big books about how to code,” Graham said. “And they were girls.”

The next step, she said, is to provide a place for hands-on experimentation; a place where people can practice the tech principles they read about. Kids need a place to tinker and experiment and take things apart before putting them back together.

“It’s not too different from browsing for a book: It’s building knowledge yourself with resources that the library can offer,” Graham said.

While the library’s foray into tech education has begun with a younger set, McClure said she’d like to provide a place for adults to experiment as well. The Loussac Library has an Innovation Lab where the Anchorage Makers host “maker nights” on the first Tuesday of every month: Maybe the Mountain View branch could eventually host a pop-up maker space in its own community room, McClure said.

“One of our dreams is to have a 3D printer here for this branch and to have people be able to come in and experiment and print out something that they have designed,” she said.

The printers cost anywhere from several hundred to several thousand dollars, and the Loussac Library currently has one on order for its newly remodeled Innovation Lab. Rayette Sterling, an adult services coordinator with the Anchorage Library system, said the library will work with Anchorage Makers to coordinate the use of the printer. On Nov. 15, the group is holding a meeting at Loussac from 12-6 p.m. to talk about a new 3D printing club.

The maker movement, as well as a growing interest in technological innovation, seems to have taken Anchorage by storm over the past several years, Sterling said. The renovations at Loussac’s Innovation Lab – which formerly housed CDs and DVDs – took place after a library focus group honed in on entrepreneurship about three years ago. This past summer, Loussac hosted the second annual Anchorage Mini-Maker Faire. And over the past several years, Anchorage has been home to numerous “hackathons,” where programmers spend a weekend developing apps for different civic purposes.

“There’s lots of energy, we just need to create the space for it,” Sterling said.

That’s where libraries come in.

Sterling said the library system hopes to become part of a “more creative Anchorage” by continuing to increase access to opportunities for invention. With the Anchorage School District facing multimillion-dollar budget shortfalls and more than 700 staff reductions over the coming years, libraries could partner with private groups to open doors to tech education throughout the municiaplity.

“Libraries are so good at providing equitable access,” Sterling said. “Just having that really vibrant community where people are working together and talking and kind of expanding their horizons.”

In Mountain View, McClure said the library has the added advantage of being located right next to Clark Middle School. Kids wander in after class every day – what if they could learn to code or build computers while they were there? It could spark a lifelong interest in innovation. It could help prepare them for a future building Anchorage’s tech sector, McClure said.

According to an October report from the Alaska Department of Labor and Workforce Development, the state’s professional, scientific and technical services industry is projected to add nearly 2,500 new jobs over the next eight years; more than any other single sector aside from natural resources, transportation and retail trade.

The training for those jobs has to begin somewhere.

“If you are a business owner in Anchorage, and you’re in the world of technology, what better way to find your future employees than to partner with the library, have these programs for kids, and the kids can become interns and the interns can become employees,” McClure said.

But the dream of transforming the library into a space for hands-on innovation goes beyond the potential employment benefits. McClure said it’s about empowering people to build their own futures, starting with a color-coded Raspberry Pi or a 3D plastic prototype.

“I would like to think that at this point – if you have an idea you can make it happen, and there’s this feeling like, if you come up with something you have the means to create it,” she said. “You have the means to make it a reality.”

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