Programming is a school for life
With his start-up Cool Code GmbH, Daniel Stefania teaches children and young people the art of programming by working with them to develop games. He came up with the idea for this business during his computer science studies at the ZHAW.
The 26-year-old teacher and 10-year-old pupil sit opposite each other on their respective screens and tell each other about their hobbies. They of course also talk about the games they like to play and quickly find common ground. Teacher Daniel Stefania enjoys making music, plays the piano and loves a game of squash, while pupil Marco is mad about the guitar and likes to hit the tennis court. The transition from this informal process of getting to know one another to the nitty gritty of the actual lesson is a smooth one. There is no great leap between the question about what Marco’s favourite game is and the follow-up question of what is needed to play it. And once they have clarified what programming actually is, the two of them have already made a concrete start to their work. The ten-year-old is programming his first game on the web application of the Scratch program under the guidance of Daniel Stefania. Although Marco has never programmed a game before, he gets to grips with it after a just a short time and is delighted with the small successes he achieves, for example when the knight he has chosen as the game’s character moves in the desired direction or when a sound is made at the right moment.
“For me, teaching brings together the best of all disciplines.”
Stefania openly shares his joy with his pupil. And it is the joy that his work brings him that is one of the biggest drivers for the founder of Cool Code, the limited liability company that offers these online coding lessons with the aim of teaching children programming. “I love programming and I value the opportunity to work with children and young people. For me, teaching brings together the best of all disciplines,” says Stefania. It was only last August the he completed his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the ZHAW. Nevertheless, he had already founded Cool Code GmbH back in April. Today, he primarily works for his own start-up and gets a helping hand from friends and colleagues, who are now part of the team as teachers or who work in the background in an advisory capacity. He also has a part-time role as an app developer with another start-up. “This suits me down to the ground. I’m glad that I’m able to work like this.”
Stefania came to programming by chance, as he puts it. He had in fact attended a preliminary design course with the goal of studying film at the Zurich University of the Arts (ZHdK). During an introduction to programming, it suddenly became clear to Stefania that this is what he wanted to do. “For me, programming was something creative from the very beginning, something that is quite personal, and it was always clear to me that I wanted to develop apps or games after completing my degree,” says Stefania. The only thing that he didn’t realise back then was that the road he was about to embark upon would lead to teaching.
“The children benefit from two things in particular: from the lesson that patience pays off and the opportunity to practice approaching problems in an analytical and playful manner."
During his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science at the ZHAW School of Engineering, he started to introduce individual children to programming on a private basis. More enquiries then came in. Friends of these children would come knocking at his door, and at some point the idea of transforming this service into a professional undertaking began to take root in Stefania’s mind. “I realised that there really is a demand here.” The private lessons clearly illustrated something that he already knew: programming games isn't only fun, but also trains various important skills, including the ability to think logically, solve problems, express creativity, develop stories, work together with others and make your own ideas understandable to those around you. All things that come in useful during life. “I am sure that the children benefit from two things in particular, namely the lesson that patience pays off if something doesn't work the first time round and the opportunity to practice approaching problems in an analytical and playful manner."
He was still some way off turning this vague idea into a business of his own. Nevertheless, Stefania founded his company before he had even finished his studies. “While it was undoubtedly the right decision, it of course wasn’t an easy step to take.” The time factor was the main challenge that Stefania had to overcome when setting up the company. As a student who had yet to graduate from his Bachelor’s programme, he was not yet able to devote all his attention to the new limited liability company. What is more, he set up his firm on his own, meaning he was responsible for every last detail. To this day, he still does the lion’s share of the work himself, including the administration. “I deliberately decided against looking for investors,” he says. “As we exclusively teach online, we are able to keep the fixed costs low. Of course, it is not possible to delegate work without outside investment.” Stefania wants to stick with this strategy for now. His five-person team of teachers and advisors in the background is currently doing well.
Various offerings provided by the ZHAW proved helpful in establishing the start-up. “Thanks to the knowledge I was able to acquire in my foundation courses, I can introduce others to programming,” says Stefania. What also especially helped him were the specialisations he was able to choose at the end of his degree programme. “This gave me the chance to put together content that fitted with my future professional plans. I have on a number of occasions been able to use what I learnt directly for my start-up.” A specific programme for start-ups, which Stefania was able to participate in thanks to the ZHAW, was particularly helpful. He attended the Business Concept course at the STARTUP CAMPUS. “The ambition to turn my idea into reality ultimately developed during this course,” explains Stefania.
“For the children who had programmed the games, it was, of course, a wonderful experience to see other children enjoying them.”
Who still gets support from a mentor as part of the ZHAW entrepreneurship initiative of the School of Engineering. “We are in regular contact and are always agreeing new goals for my start-up. This helps me enormously. As an entrepreneur herself, my mentor knows what is important.” His professional activities also often see him cross paths with the ZHAW in other places. At the "Nacht der Technik" event ("Night of Technology"), Cool Code was able to exhibit its pupils’ work, with the games developed in the courses being played live by visitors. “This was, of course, a wonderful experience, especially for the children who had programmed the games. It was fantastic to see other children enjoying their games.” There was also a recent invitation to the alumni dinner organised by the ZHAW entrepreneurship initiative (see box).
Stefania is especially pleased when his pupils' programming skills help them when searching for an apprenticeship place. “Generally speaking, IT apprenticeships are only awarded to young people with a certificate from secondary level A,” says Stefania. One of his students attended secondary level B yet still wanted to start an IT apprenticeship. “Thanks to our weekly course together, I knew this pupil well and could see that he had a talent for programming. He was also motivated and hungry for knowledge. Unfortunately, he still received several rejections to his applications. It was clear that he was a great candidate for an IT apprenticeship.” Things worked out in the end, however. One of the factors in this success story was the fact that the pupil was able to present the impressive programming projects he had created with Cool Code. “That was a moving moment for me,” says a proud Stefania.
Experiences such as these show Stefania just how valuable it is to give children access to coding at an early age. This is very much in the same vein as the approach applied to music lessons and other hobbies. “Discovering your own talents is a very important process and is only possible if you have the chance to try things out,” he says. Cool Code is currently in the process of approaching various school to offer taster courses. “I am looking forward to seeing what happens next,” adds Stefania. Either way, he feels that he is in exactly the right place professionally speaking. He no longer wants to miss out on working with children. “The first thing that I admire about these young people is their motivation and their enjoyment of learning. And secondly, their self-confidence. They see something that they want to be able to do and then simply get about learning it. They don't stop to think that it looks difficult and they may be better served to leave it alone.”
The online lesson with Marco is now almost over. Stefania has patiently explained the countless functions and possibilities of Scratch to him. He has also shared tips on how the game could be developed further, taking Marco’s interests into account, and taken up ideas that he has implemented directly with his pupil. Marco grew in confidence with each new line he programmed, laughing about the experiments that worked as well as those that didn’t turn out as planned at the first attempt. And in passing, Marco has also learnt the basic of maths, which aren’t yet part of his year 5 school curriculum, but which are important for developing a game – and can be explained in a simple and concrete fashion in this context. At the end of the lesson, Marco has succeeded in programming his first rudimentary game with Stefania’s assistance. Expectations have thus been exceeded, and a desire for more has been awakened.
Around 50 graduates met at the end of September at the first ZHAW Alumni Entrepreneur Homecoming Dinner in Winterthur. The evening was organised by ZHAW entrepreneurship. There was a great deal of discussion and networking, with many ideas being exchanged. Those in attendance also enjoyed a presentation by Helmut Grabner, the School of Engineering’s Entrepreneurship Delegate. For President Jean-Marc Piveteau, who welcomed the alumni, the founders are a source of inspiration and role models for the ZHAW as an entrepreneurial university.