ITHACA, N.Y.—Twelve-year-old Robert Kong began teaching himself how to code at just six years old. For his sixth birthday, his parents gave him a MacBook, which he used to continue learning coding on Scratch, a free coding educational program designed for children. Since then, Robert has been exploring coding languages, and different software and hardware programs, learned C++ and JavaScript with help from books his parents gave him and his own internet research.

From a young age, parents Kevin and Kathy Kong noticed that Robert was academically advanced, detail-oriented, curious and creative. With Kevin working in computer science, Kathy said she believes that exposure helped inspire Robert to learn how to code.

“He’s been very deep into this, he can learn on his own,” Kathy said. “He learned pretty much everything all by himself, which is a good thing because we noticed from a young age his self-learning skills are pretty strong. Once he’s motivated and he really wants to learn, he can learn all by himself.”

Kathy explained that Robert, an EAC Montessori student, began tinkering with her and Kevin’s old, broken work laptops, updating or changing the operating systems and clearing out storage as needed. One time, she said, he even installed a Windows operating system on a MacBook.

“Scratch is the first language he learned and he’s very experienced in that, he created over 100 projects in Scratch,” Kathy said. “Besides that he learned HTML, he actually started working off his own website called TechSpaces.Club, and he did the web-hosting all by himself. I didn’t have much knowledge about it and dad is so busy, so most of the time he works by himself. TechSpaces is mainly a site to try to expand his teaching and offering free classes to other kids.”

When he was nine or 10, Robert began teaching his younger brother and sister, Steven and Sophia, using slideshows he had created.

“At the beginning, we were really surprised, you know, it’s really like school at home doing all these classes teaching Steven and Sophia how to use Scratch,” Kevin said. “We encouraged Robert, like ‘Hey, you know so much and you really like teaching little kids, why don’t you grow this experience to other kids and to the community?’ And a lot of kids joined the class during the summertime, twice during the pandemic because all the kids were staying home, so Robert started teaching three sessions.”

During summer 2020, Robert began teaching free coding sessions to children who were interested. Each session included four classes over a week and was held over Zoom.

“I thought it was very interesting that you could tell the computer what to do and it would show up,” Robert said. “I like sharing this knowledge with other people.”

The pupils in Robert’s classes are usually attended by 15 to 20 children, generally around age seven, and some of them return to classes for multiple sessions.

“He really wanted to engage more and the kids were so excited to learn Scratch,” Kathy said. “For each session he created different projects and in each project he gave them all the concepts and the skills to do the projects. Each session he also created a Kahoot quiz so the kids would enjoy that. He even gave homework so they could learn more and he would grade them.”

Robert’s is going to continue teaching code during a session over the February school winter break. After creating his own script, which he has created a slideshow for, complete with an introduction and examples of all the languages.

“I’m working on a new website using a different hosting site,” Robert said. “It’s still a work in progress.”

In 2022, the Kongs hope to move Robert’s coding classes from Zoom to the public library so Robert can teach other children who are excited about coding in person.

Zoë Freer-Hessler

Zoë Freer-Hessler is a general assignment reporter for the Ithaca Voice. She has covered a wide range of topics since joining the news organization in November 2021. She can be reached at zhessler@ithacavoice.com...