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Zack Baker: App Builder and Co-Learning Leader

Personal Story compiled by: Howard Rheingold

Key Takeaways

  • Cultivate a passion, and conceive of passion projects that require learning new skills and acquiring new knowledge to attain your goal.
  • Parental support and that of a teacher like Don Wettrick are enormous advantages when pursuing interest-based learning. Making the connection between your passions and your academic subjects is key.
  • Find out where people who share your passion are hanging out online, and ask for their help when needed.
  • Cultivate networks of people who share your interest and communicate with them.
  • When you've learned something because others have helped you, online or face-to-face, teach others what you've learned.

Zack Baker, a 16-year-old high school junior in Noblesville, Indiana, told me that the most important skill when learning how to code is knowing how to search Stack Overflow, the free online question and answer site where both expert programmers and novice learners solve problems together. For Zack, an accomplished app creator since age 14, learning how to program has always been networked, peer-supported, interest-powered, and participatory.

Baker is one of the students in Don Wettrick's "Innovations" class, where learners start from a project that matters to them, then work with the teacher to figure out what they need to learn in order to achieve their goal. I first discovered Paige Woodard, who introduced me to Wettrick, both of whom enthralled my Stanford graduate students when they came to talk to us in person. Wettrick brings a dozen or more of his students for an intensive several-day learning journey in the San Francisco Bay Area every year. They dazzled, inspired, and maybe slightly shamed me and my Stanford graduate students by showing us how far they took the "co-learning" we had been trying to cultivate in our seminar. I invited the Innovations co-learners back again this year. Baker was one of the dazzlers.

"I started learning BASIC when I was 9 or 10, but when I was about 12 or 13, the iPhone had become popular and I wanted to start making my own apps. Two summers ago, I went to an intensive one-week coding camp at the University of Michigan, where I learned a lot. That was really my only formal training in programming. The rest of it has been pretty much self-taught. I've developed a bunch of apps for iPhones and iPads. Most recently, I created a digital hall pass application for my high school."

Baker's school had recently provided iPads for every student. "No one liked the little pieces of paper we had used for hall passes, but everyone carries their iPad with them." Hence, the digital hall pass. Another app, Truthly, is aimed at social media practices of his generation: "A lot of older people don’t seem to know it, but around sixth or seventh grade, Instagram users do this thing called 'Truth is.' They post a picture of the words 'truth is' and then people like the post, then the person who posts sends a message to all those who liked it with messages like 'Truth is, you're funny,' or 'Truth is, you're cool.' It's really popular, but it's complicated because you have to see who liked your post then you have to text them. So I built an app that allows you to post, see who liked your post, and answer back to them. I get about 500 active users a month."

Baker's first commercial app, INSchool Law, was commissioned by a local law firm, providing (as the app store describes it) "a quick and easy way to view, bookmark, and search the titles of the sections of the 2014 Indiana Code and Indiana Administrative Code that are relevant to school and education law."

His original language was BASIC and Baker also learned Python, but "Now, I pretty much program only in Objective-C. I teach students Python in Code Club, which I started at my school to teach other kids what I’ve learned about coding." In addition to Code Club, Baker spends time at the library and the senior citizens' center, to "try to share my knowledge about technology with as many people as I can."

Baker's parents helped him get started and have supported his interest, but Baker pointed out that he really started to accelerate his learning when he learned how to ask questions on Stack Overflow. "When I first started programming, I waited until I was stumped with a problem, then I figured out how to describe it as a question on Stack Overflow. I try hard to work out as much as I can before asking. People very thoroughly helped me work out answers. Usually within an hour, I'd get a good response with code. I'd upload the response, mark it as the correct answer, and then other people can see it too if they have the same question as me. Recently, during the last couple weeks, I've started going back to Stack Overflow to answer questions for other people about the things I had already learned."

In addition to Stack Overflow, Baker follows and participates in Hacker News, sponsored by the Y-Combinator start-up incubator, which he describes as "a Reddit-esque site for technology and things like that. A couple of years ago I posted 'Hi. I'm a new computer programmer. I'm not good enough yet to make anything exciting, but I'm bored with simple tasks. What's the next step?' And I got 25 responses from people with their emails and Skype addresses, all saying, 'Talk to me. I'd love to help you.' That definitely expanded my network. I still talk to some of the people I met then. In addition, I found a 15-year-old kid in California who posted something similar to what I had said about a year later; I still talk to him and he's helping me build my website right now. Baker already understands the fundamentals of 21st-century learning and online social capital: when you have a problem, query your personal learning network; when you learn from others, pay it forward.

Much of Baker's programming these days is directed at academically-oriented problems that arise as part of his projects for the Innovations Class, but he brings his coding skills to other subjects:

"In English, if we have to make some kind of media for a project presentation, I can make an app for it. It takes me a few hours, but it's really, really cool to see an app for your project or a simple website." In Pre-Calc, Baker figured out – and taught his peers -- how to program a calculator to solve quadratic equations.

What is Baker's advice to others who resonate with his story? "I think the most important thing is finding something you're passionate about. Computer programming worked well for me. But whether it's programming or playing the guitar, do it. Don't just go to school and do school. Do something awesome with your high school career."

Photos courtesy of: Zack Baker. 

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