How a Teen Knew She was Ready to Teach Computer Coding Skills

Courtesy of Ming Horn
Courtesy of Ming Horn

Diplomas, certificates and accreditation are just some of the indicators that let aspiring educators know they’re ready to teach. But what happens when your passion gets ahead of your level of experience? Ming Horn was debating her sense of readiness earlier this year when she set out on an ambitious plan to teach code to teens at the Future Light Orphanage in Cambodia. Horn, then a junior at Berkeley High School in California, had never taught a classroom of students, nor did she have any fluency in Khmer. What she did have, however, was her experience as a learner.

“I don’t know how computer science classes are taught, but I know how I learn — project-based, experimental, asking people in the community,” she told an audience this week at the Big Ideas Fest hosted by ISKME. “My time was spent writing pitches, emailing people, developing the curriculum and learning on the fly.” Pulling off this project “was not about your coding skills, but really about your organization.”

Courtesy of Ming Horn
Courtesy of Ming Horn

She had a lot to organize and deliver last summer after launching KhodeUp on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo. The project raised more than $5,000 above her $15,000 goal to fund laptops for 20 to 30 teens, Internet connections and travel. KhodeUp was designed as a four-week course for teenage orphans in Cambodia to learn HTML, CSS, Javascript and Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. Those programming skills could help improve the standard of living for the orphans by giving them the basics for well-paying tech jobs as opposed to the lower wages of the garment or hospitality industry.

For their final projects, students modeled the process of taking client input and applying it to website designs. "One of my students ended up integrating code that I had never taught him," said Horn. "He had learned how to learn by himself." Students designed and built working websites by the end of the course. Graduates of the program were able to keep the laptops and could apply for funding for future projects.

"Much of the learning will happen after I leave," Horn said. "My plan was to give them the basics, but really point them to the basics they need to continue the learning."

Courtesy of Ming Horn
Courtesy of Ming Horn

While some people might wait until they've at least graduated from high school, Horn felt ready to take the leap into teaching the class overseas for several reasons. First, resources available online allow motivated individuals to find necessary tools. She also had encouragement from a teacher she met, Jen Selby, at a Girls Who Code summer session in 2013. When Horn shared her idea for the program, her teacher said, “All you need to do is try. You don’t need to be an expert.”

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But of course, there would be growing pains.

"My first day was really scary," said Horn. "I was really nervous about what the students would think."

Despite being the teacher, Horn, then 16 years old, was the second-youngest person in the class of 24 students and one translator. She didn't know the language, and that altered how she had intended to teach the students.

"I threw out my game plan halfway through the first week. I still followed the same structure but I stopped using the [PowerPoint] slides and [started] doing examples of what was on the slides and not talking as much."

She began teaching mostly by demonstrating her process of coding. "When you code, even if you’re super experienced, you make mistakes all the time. I had to get comfortable with the fact that they would see me make mistakes.” What surprised her most about teaching code to the students was that everyone was comfortable making mistakes and asking for help. That was in contrast to what Horn experienced in the United States, where her peers were more reluctant to show those vulnerabilities.

"Everybody was a beginner, and that creates a much more safe environment to make mistakes."

Ming Horn with her brother on a visit to Angkor Wat when she was in the first grade. (Courtesy of Ming Horn)
Ming Horn with her brother on a visit to Angkor Wat when she was in the first grade. (Courtesy of Ming Horn)

Why KhodeUp in Cambodia?

When Ming Horn sees the kids at the orphanage, she sees the reflection of of a life that could have been hers. She was adopted as a toddler from China and her brother was adopted from Cambodia. Her brother has family members in Cambodia and Horn's family visits them regularly. It was during a trip in 2013 that she met her cousin's friend, who wanted to pursue computer science but didn't have the resources.

"I’ve always had this sense that I could have easily ended up staying in one of those orphanages my whole life. Having been afforded the opportunity to code since first grade and explore all of those passions of mine, I've always been looking for a way to give back to kids that really are not that different from me.”

Now in her senior year, she's exploring possibilities for KhodeUp, which include finding more funding for teaching future coding courses at the orphanage.

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KhodeUp from KhodeUp on Vimeo.

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