SOUTH BEND, Ind. -- Inside downtown's main branch of the St. Joseph County Public Library last week, 10-year-old Aiden Johnson dragged and dropped a few color-coded blocks on his computer screen into a command prompt. After a few minutes, he'd created his own story. His self-selected character - a cartoon dragon - had the option to go through a door, and depending on Aiden's typed response, the character would travel either to a courtyard with a bus and airliner, or his bedroom, with a warm bowl of tomato soup.

The adventure playing out on Johnson's screen was one of his own creation, a collection of the tools he'd plugged into an MIT-developed program called Scratch. Seven weeks before, Johnson didn't know anything about computer coding. But enrolling in the library's new Google CS First course has got him well on his way to learning the basics.

The elementary and middle school students in the program's first cycle meet each Tuesday for eight weeks in the Main Library's basement classroom to learn programming from Mark Dehmlow and Amy Bartkowiak.

Dehmlow, the director of information technology at Notre Dame's Hesburgh Libraries, and Bartkowiak, a youth services librarian at the public library, found out about Google's free computer science program for libraries, and thought it would be ideal to start here. The program fits in with the active expansion of St. Joseph County Public Library's technology offerings, an effort to provide equal access to technology for all community members.

"It's part of our broader digital initiatives goal," said library spokeswoman Jennifer Henecke. "We're trying to break down barriers and make technology accessible to everyone."

In addition to the Google CS class, the library is expanding its Wi-Fi access, updating its computer systems and potentially adding additional technology classes.

"This is the only tech class we've offered that just (booked up) in seconds," said Henecke.

In the Google CS class, students can move forward with each lesson at their own pace. The freedom lets them get creative with their work, choosing how they want to see their program work and which commands are involved.

"Working with younger kids isn't something I do regularly," Dehmlow said. "There's so much enthusiasm and energy."

The program is free to students, thanks to library-provided laptops and no-cost access for the library to Google CS First's curriculum. The first course focused on storytelling, walking students through a series of lessons to teach them how to develop an interactive story. But there are eight other themes to choose from for the next course.

Bartkowiak and Dehmlow are pleased with the turnout considering the class is taught in the evening after a full day of school.

Roaming around the room, Bartkowiak and Dehmlow, along with volunteer Sean Summers check in at the different workstations, where kids can place a Post-it Note on their laptop to signal they have a question.

"We spend a lot of time help students work through the problems," Bartkowiak said. "I like when you get the little aha moments. Their faces light up."

"We've tried to balance being present and letting them run with their creativity," said Dehmlow.

The library will hold another Google CS course June 7 through July 26. Registrations will be due by May. The theme for the next course will be music, to go along with the library's summer reading challenge.

Aiden's mom, Sarah, said he often talks about what he's learned in the course.

"He loves every minute of it," she said. "He wishes it was more than once a week."

As for the summer course, Aiden said he's definitely signing up.

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Source: South Bend Tribune, http://bit.ly/2FZoAM0

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Information from: South Bend Tribune, http://www.southbendtribune.com