Dan Ringer (left) of Upper Township, teaches the after school class and helps students Ty Southhard 6th grade (center left) Matt Catanoso 7th grade (back) Harrison Hepting 7th grade and Morgan McLees 7th grade, all from Upper Township, power up their Raspberry computers through a USB connection. Upper Township Middle School has a new after school class where student learn the basics of how computers and programming works, primarily through a device called Raspberry Pi that is essentially a credit card-sized computer. Tuesday March 26, 2013, (Dale Gerhard/The Press of Atlantic City)

Dale Gerhard

Debbie McLees says her oldest daughter, Morgan, is like a lot of young students whose job interests seem to change with the weather.

Lately, though, the seventh grader has honed in on her career path.

“This month, she wants to be a coder when she grows up and work at Facebook for Mark Zuckerberg and ride around on a Razor scooter,” said McLees, of Upper Township.

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Morgan McLees is one of 10 students enrolled in an eight-week introductory computer programming class at Upper Township Middle School using a credit card-sized computer called Raspberry Pi.

The class is supposed to lay a foundation for understanding the basic workings of computers in a world that is becoming increasingly reliant on the technology while users seem to be growing more detached from their inner processes.

“It would be nice to see an engineer come out of this course, or maybe five or six,” said teacher Dan Ringer, a parent of two primary school students who proposed and volunteered to teach the course.

It is part of the school district’s Continuing Education Upper Township program, or CEUT, which offers after-school courses for children and adults on everything from playing with Legos to learning the game of pickleball.

Ringer, a pharmacist, wanted to give back to the school district he said has been so good to his family, and the district hired him as the equivalent of a substitute teacher.

“We were trying to find something that kids would be interested in,” he said. “I could teach chemistry, but no one is interested in that in middle school.”

Ringer said he always had an interest in computer science and he settled on that after he found Raspberry Pi, a $25 to $35 minimalist machine created by British programmers to foster interest in computer science among young people.

The device is simply an uncovered computer motherboard, a green chip covered in tiny pieces of metal and plastic, LED lights and inputs for audio and video cords, USB cables, SD cards, Internet connection and power.

It is far from the sleek appearance of an iPhone of the same size, but its power lies in its simplicity as a learning tool.

“As a Board of Education member, I really like that we’re offering this for the middle schools to get them hooked on how to learn to operate computers rather than download apps or play video games,” said McLees, vice president of the Upper Township school board.

With the small computer, the students learn to actually build their own games. On Tuesday, the sixth class of the eight-course class, the students worked their way through a lesson on creating shapes with basic coding commands.

As Ringer instructed the group of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders, some followed diligently along, while others had already done that lesson in their spare time and were already putting together advanced programs.

Seventh-grader Matt Catanoso showed off a video game he made where a rowboat meant to be George Washington crossing the Delaware River avoids floating icebergs while the song “Yankee Doodle Dandy” plays.

“How do you add the music?” asked seventh-grader Harrison Hepding. Catanoso showed him.

The middle school does not have a dedicated computer class, but all the students get Macbook Air computers they use in their other courses. It costs $85 to join the Raspberry Pi class, which pays for the equipment and other costs of the program so it is no cost to the district.

The plan is for the district to offer the course again next school year and make it a regular feature of the CEUT program, as long as there is interest. Some parents have asked for an adult version of the course.

As for Ringer, he said he is definitely interested in continuing to teach the course, which he said reminds him of the moment in school that sparked his interest in computers.

“Their level of excitement is incredible,” he said. “I remember that moment, and to see that these moments are happening so frequently is amazing to see.”

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