Larry LaRue: Their computer game teaches kids to write code

A couple of bright Seabury students light a fire at Startup Seattle weekend

larry.larue@thenewstribune.comMay 24, 2014 

Fiona Brennan and Semira Lacet-Brown can sit on a couch, push their heads together and giggle like adolescent girls, reminding their mothers that their children are just that.

Then they start talking — and a good many adults feel stupid.

Neither Fiona, 12, nor Semira, 11, wants that. It’s not their intention, nor their fault. They’re simply exceptional, and can overwhelm with their energy and ideas.

Adam Brock is one of their instructors at Seabury Middle School in Tacoma.

“I get to be surprised every day,” Brock said. “I’m always amazed.”

Brock is hardly the only adult Fiona and Semira have surprised. Early in May, attending a local film festival, Semira met a gentleman in the lobby between shows and struck up a conversation about computer technology.

The man handed her an invitation to a May 9 Startup Seattle weekend at the University of Washington.

“I showed it to Fiona, and she wanted to go, too,” Semira said. “We thought it was just Friday night — we didn’t know it was all weekend. Fiona was supposed to play soccer Saturday.”

Semira’s mother, Kelly Brown, agreed to drive them up and back, then read more about the event.

“I thought it was for kids their age, or at least involved kids their age,” Brown said. “When I found out it was mostly adults, I tried to talk them out of going.”

Without success.

The weekend was a three-day event at which designers, developers and entrepreneurs give one-minute pitches on business ideas. That might intimidate some kids, but not Semira or Fiona.

“We weren’t going to pitch at first, but then we came up with an idea for a game that would teach kids computer coding,” Semira said.

“We wanted to create a game that wasn’t boring,” Fiona said. “In our game, you find the monsters, and they’re all threatening. And you learn.”

In all, there were 38 pitches made that first night of Startup, and 37 came from adults. Fiona particularly liked one.

“There was an app that was supposed to remind you not to buy anything when you were drunk,” she said. “I thought that was pretty funny.”

When their minute came up, Fiona introduced them and Semira pitched. Mouths in the audience dropped. A bit later, when it came time to vote, each attendee picked a pitch they liked best.

“We got 28 votes,” Fiona said. “No one else had more than 18.”

By winning, the girls earned a fellowship to Code Fellows bootcamp — two nights a week, four weeks in June.

“I’d never heard of a boot camp,” Fiona said. “I thought they said ‘Buddha-camp.’”

For the rest of the weekend, the two sixth-graders had a team of nine adults working with them on their idea — graphic designers, researcher, developers, businessmen.

“We’ve got a website — Generationcode.co,” Semira said. “We’re getting together again as a team, and we’re meeting at Microsoft.”

The game is a work in progress, and the “company” Fiona and Semira are forming will likely be a for-profit with a social venture organization that could pay its founders.

Those founders aren’t greedy.

“We polled the people there, and they were willing to pay $20-$50 for an educational game like ours,” Semira said. “We’re thinking $19.95.

“One of the people did some research and found there are 1 million unfilled coding jobs available because there aren’t enough coders. We want to help kids learn how to read and write code early.”

Semira speaks five code languages. Fiona none.

“I’m into art,” Fiona said. “We want to keep working on games.”

Their mothers aren’t surprised.

“They’re the dynamic duo,” said Shannon Brennan, Fiona’s mom, who teaches art at Curtis Junior High in University Place. “I thought they were going to Startup to listen and learn — but they do this to me a lot. They were excited to put something into action.”

Brown, a psychologist at The Evergreen State College, thinks the girls make each other stronger.

“They’re like having two daughters, and one fills the gaps of the other,” Brown said. “Fiona is good at reading emotions, and she softens Semira. They have a great sense of humor with one another. They get each other.”

After a weekend spent with adults, the girls returned May 12 to Seabury, an independent school serving highly capable children from preschool through middle school. They enthusiastically greeted each fellow student at the door.

What did they say?

“‘We won! We won!’” Fiona exclaimed, re-enacting the moment.

Then she and Semira hugged each other and made a sound like a bagful of piglets being lightly squeezed.

Larry LaRue: 253-597-8638
larry.larue@thenewstribune.com

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