Does Every Child Need to Learn to Code?

A Main Line start-up is banking on it.

BSD’s Christopher Geary at the company’s Bryn Mawr HQ. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

BSD’s Christopher Geary at the company’s Bryn Mawr HQ. Photo by Gene Smirnov.

Christopher Geary doesn’t look as tired as he ought to. In the past week he’s met with educators who run private schools in Beijing and then some school leaders in Hong Kong, where he lives, and just this morning in late March with the headmaster of Hill Top Prep in Rosemont. He logged 286,000 air miles last year and doesn’t seem to be cutting back. Right now, at least he’s sitting in one place — the little reception area of his company, in its year-old American headquarters in the back of the Rosemont Square shopping center on Lancaster Avenue. He’s with Ashley Govberg of the Philadelphia jewelry-store Govbergs, who have become Geary’s business partners here. Their company is BSD Code + Design Academy, which was set up first in Asia and now is here to teach computer coding to our schoolchildren. The company holds classes and camps at its clubhouse of an office suite, sends a small staff out to teach at a growing number of local schools, and develops curricula for private- and public-school teachers to use.

One thing Geary does look is like a hipster: He’s dressed in black, with thick-rimmed glasses, scraggly Johnny Depp facial hair, and a man bun tied behind his head. But the hipster tag doesn’t quite fit. Raised by parents who toted him around Asia and educated him in Britain, he speaks with the kind of English boarding-school accent that sounds refined and exotic in Philadelphia. Geary, who’s 34, has a law degree. He’s written for the Huffington Post about the ethics of shark fin soup. With his wife, in Hong Kong, he owns a jewelry business concerned with “ethical sourcing” of metals and gems. He technical-dives off the coast of Indonesia. (Technical is deeper and more dangerous than recreational scuba.) He trains in martial arts in Hong Kong (really, the place you want to do it).

Beijing, Hong Kong … Rosemont Square shopping center in Bryn Mawr? That makes perfect sense, right?

“What? There’s nothing appealing about Philly for globe-trotters?” Govberg says mock-defensively.

Geary opened the first location of BSD — it stands for Build Something Different — in Hong Kong around four years ago, after having done work in corporate consulting and recruiting. He baked a social mission into the tech business — he spun off a nonprofit called RefuGeek that trained refugees in information technology — but BSD is a for-profit operation, working mostly with private schools. A credo on Geary’s personal website states: “I think that investing in a business does as much as investing in charity. I believe in growth over greed.”

It’s not surprising that Geary would see the gigantic market of helicopter parents in the United States as a growth opportunity. While running a tennis program in Florida more than a decade ago, he met Danny Govberg’s oldest son, Brian. Years later, visiting a colleague in Philly, he connected with Brian and ultimately with Danny and Ashley Govberg. They were looking at business opportunities in Asia and wanted to chat. (The shared interest in jewelry was just a coincidence.) Geary told them about BSD.

“That’s when Ashley and Danny said, ‘We want that here,’” Geary remembers.

“I think for many years now, Danny and I have believed that coding will be an important part of kids’ futures,” Ashley Govberg says. “When I met Christopher the first time, he was so passionate and so driven and so excited, and just constantly the next idea kept coming and coming and coming. And my husband’s very much like that, too. So to me, I saw a younger version. He just had me hook, line and sinker from day one believing in his mission. And that’s one of his most powerful tools — that you believe in him.”

The idea Geary and his crew are promoting is that digital literacy is more than being able to swipe a screen or download a video. It’s that computer code is the next foreign language students should be studying. That learning to control a computer from the inside is the driver’s ed of the 21st century. Of course, it’s more than just a basic skill. The appeal is that having marketable computer-science chops in 2017 is like what studying to be a doctor used to be — the kind of ticket to career prosperity that lets every proud parent dream big.

It might surprise you that anyone thinks the computer education offered in prosperous Main Line schools needs to be supplemented. Lower Merion famously was one of the first school districts anywhere to issue every student a laptop in ninth grade (and later infamously snapped illicit photos of students at home through those laptops’ cameras, but all is forgiven).

Main Line schools have computer classes. They use online teaching aids, e-textbooks and homework trackers. But much of the tech training doesn’t focus on coding, and it’s an ongoing challenge for overburdened faculties everywhere to keep up with digital innovations. A high-school physics teacher today might be teaching out of the same textbook that you wrote your name in as a sophomore. The band instructor hands out sheet music written before anyone alive today was born. Computer technology becomes obsolete by the nanosecond.

The gap between what schools offer and what they don’t is wider in some places. In thriving school districts, even a small gap can be magnified by competitive impulses — the need to get kids every advantage they deserve. In this magnified gap, BSD has plenty of room to grow.

BSD Code + Design Academy opened for business in Rosemont Square in early 2016, offering the kind of extracurricular training that your Mathnasiums, your Kaplan test-prep centers, your iD Tech Camps and other child-smartening enterprises have long provided for parents eager to give their kids a leg up.

“Since we’re here and we’re Philly Main Line people, it just felt natural to do it in our backyard,” Ashley Govberg says. “By having the brick-and-mortar location started, we were able — through parents, through friends, just school connections of who we know — to get our message out there. And we started having conversations with different schools.”

Posted rates are $100 per class, $700 per month, $5,000 per year. Students generally are eight to 18 but can be younger. “Learning a language is easiest at a young age,” points out Scott Peterman, a Masterman grad and director of education strategy at BSD. (He formerly worked at iPraxis, which brings tech experts and other mentors into inner-city Philly schools.)

Kids at BSD learn video game creation, Web development, robotics, wearable tech fashion. There’s a “maker” room with programmable Raspberry Pi computers, Arduino circuit boards, Gemma wearable processors. The setup is partly a clone of the Hong Kong facility, though aspects of the approach and content are localized. Not to overgeneralize, but kids in Philadelphia, USA, tend to be a little more ambitious and original in their ideas for games than those in Asia, the BSD instructors tell me. Students here also may require more immediate results from their work. Or, as Geary diplomatically put it, they need “more outcomes within a shorter space of time.” Our kids are busy people!

BSD’s approach is to make tech relatable and relevant. On a big wall monitor, lead instructor JP Sistenich, another Brit, with a terrific Hugh Grant accent, pulls up the Phillies website. He displays the page for pitcher Zach Eflin. “One of our introductory classes is using Inspect in Chrome,” he says. (It’s a tool for Web developers that allows you, from a browser, to examine a page’s code and see what any change you make would look like.) He deletes the name “Zach Eflin” and types in “SpongeBob SquarePants.”

“SpongeBob SquarePants is now a member of the Phillies! And his number is … 120. When we show them that, they’re off,” he says. Nice roster move.

Geary demonstrates how kids interested in designing wearable technology receive lessons in color and optics. First they’re shown how to change the colors of an on-screen cartoon character by tweaking digits in computer code. “If I want to make white, I actually make every number as high as possible,” he explains.

Then Geary picks up a Gemma, a computer the size of a quarter. It can attach to plastic strips of LED lights that students can sew into clothing. So after they learn about colors on the computer, they can program the LEDs to flash different hues in customized sequences, creating light-up fashion.

All the BSD projects use real computer code, but Geary tells me that just as important as the programming language is getting students accustomed to “computational thinking.” “Computational thinking is not just being able to construct solutions using code. It’s about decomposition of problems,” he says. “That could be understanding an audience. The three of us here — how do we break down into our individual traits? And then how would I reconstruct a strategy to reach us? It’s computational. It’s not code. But if you understand computer science, if you understand coding, then that computational mind-set allows you to do that.”

I sort of lose his logic as he explains, but I think this is a popular sentiment in educational circles. Being able to think like a programmer can help you break problems into manageable pieces. A recent article in the Atlantic discussed how in the nation of Finland, they’re trying to incorporate coding ideas into every classroom, not just computer courses. “In a physical-education class, students can act out the concept of a loop (essentially a sequence) by putting on a favorite tune and repeating a series of dance steps,” the article says. “In art class, kids can learn about loops by knitting, which is, after all, a sequence of stitches that sometimes vary and sometimes stay the same.”

The BSD staff also thinks of the computer coding academy as filling a role similar to that of the suburban martial-arts academy. “We want this to be character-building, the way that karate teaches kids discipline and molds the kind of person they are,” says Gabrielle Iorio, BSD’s general manager. There’s a long-term aim to connect more student projects to the sort of make-the-world-better ethos that many techies preach, “in the same way that a black belt in karate or an Eagle Scout has certain community-service obligations,” BSD instructor Mike Dixon says.

The other side of BSD’s business plan is working directly with schools, private and public, from elementary grades on up. It can make as much sense for a school to outsource its tech teaching to specialists as it does to have an outside vendor supply student lunches.

“It works for smaller schools that can’t afford to have a full-time tech staff,” says Tom Needham, headmaster of Hill Top Prep in Rosemont, which has students visit BSD twice a week as part of an extracurricular program. Hill Top serves students with learning differences, ADHD, high anxiety, OCD, Asperger’s and other special needs.

“Today, there is a real focus on bringing the community into the school and taking the school into the community, so partnership is a real game changer for all of our schools, public or private,” Needham says.

Gladwyne Montessori recently lost its tech teacher. Through Ashley Govberg, who has a son there, it brought in BSD to teach coding.

“We had two weeks to figure this all out,” says Carrie Kries, the head of school there. “Not only did they turn around a curriculum that mapped to ours; they mapped their schedule to ours. And, quite frankly, they came in from a budget standpoint where we could afford them.”

The folks at BSD would like to do more work in less affluent communities, where the kids don’t already have vast advantages. “Eventually we’d like to be able to give it away,” Geary tells me. “But we need to be able to build a strong foundation ourselves.”

“You have to start somewhere,” Govberg says. “We’re constantly trying to meet the next person, the next school.” It’s been like that, one school at a time. They’ve moved into public schools: Gladwyne Elementary, Belmont Hills Elementary, Maple Glen Elementary, others.

“There are issues around budgets, or collective bargaining — things that public schools have to deal with that as an independent school I don’t have to deal with as much,” says Needham, who used to be a public-school administrator. But private enterprise in public schools is getting less unusual every year. It could represent a bigger growth area for BSD than offering small group classes out of its Lancaster Avenue office. What if entire school districts decide they need this?

The question then becomes how to scale up. Right now, BSD is a boutique operation, handcrafting a plan for each customer. Geary hopes the answer to scale is for BSD to train teachers to handle the material themselves, along with the software the company has created to contain and standardize its lesson plans.

The software, LaunchBox, has hundreds of challenges using real code that can be rearranged and combined into larger projects. It’s built to let teachers who are less than black belts in tech run a class without fear. It saves student projects in portfolios of real coding work that they can show to colleges and employers. Ding!

Maybe more than all that, the software gives BSD a product, its own intellectual property. It gives the little start-up a toe in the educational publishing business, which is gigantic — $16 billion annually, by one estimate. The players are huge, and it’s all going digital. It occurs to me as I talk with Geary about traditional textbook publishers that one of them might find it smart to acquire BSD someday.

“We spent three years building it. We’ve done that grassroots learning,” Geary answers, like a savvy educator and international entrepreneur. “Would it make more sense for a big company to spend two years making a decision on it and three years trying to build it while we’ve already done that? Not really. I think it would make sense for a company like that to eat a company like us.”

Published as “Cracking the Code” in the May 2017 issue of Philadelphia magazine.