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Balancing Act:

How The Coder School Blends Computers and Sports into the Ultimate Learning Environment

Chad and Ellen Hamel are both healers by training. Chad is a veterinarian. Ellen, a nurse. Ellen spent several years working in critical care units and the operating room. She then received her Master’s degree in Public Health at George Washington University, and became a manager and director. Her clinical experience and education prepared her well for her current “day job” working for a healthcare IT company. Chad has extensive clinical experience in small and large animal medicine, and in public policy, including coding useful databases for animal treatment protocols and disease management. In addition, he owns several agriculture related businesses and even published a children’s book “I Want to Be A Veterinarian When I Grow Up”.

Together, in the opening of “The Coder School” in Ashburn, and multiple cooperative coding programs throughout the area, they’ve built a loyal fan base of kids and parents who wholeheartedly believe in their teaching methodology. They – like the Hamel's, their Code Coaches and partners – now assert that coding is a “superpower” that unlocks kids’ belief in themselves, as well as multiple cognitive abilities. Put simply, students at The Coder School are learning not only an essential and marketable skill for the future, but they are acquiring knowledge in how to learn and cope with anything life throws at them, just by breaking a problem down into its component parts.

Going a little deeper into why the Hamel's would add teaching kids to code to their already full lives, it helps to understand that they have themselves had to cope with a few of life’s more complex challenges.

Explains Chad, “Our ‘why’ is Cooper,” the couple’s 7-year-old son. “We don’t talk much about it, but Cooper was born with a rare brain cyst which caused him to develop hydrocephalus as an infant. Cooper had brain surgery when he was three months old.” Children born with the condition sometimes develop speech more slowly or experience other cognitive disconnects. Chad says learning to code, “has helped Cooper so much... (and) our experience motivated us to open The Coder School as a way to pay it forward.”

Cooper’s parents believe the communication skills he learned through both coding and interacting with his coding teachers paved the way for him to interact with other kids and adults more easily. The mental stimulus, hand-eye coordination and cause-and-effect processes all helped knit together Cooper’s cognitive abilities. But both parents also credit the combination of mental and physical activity with his and his little brother’s wellbeing.

At home, “every room is a children’s room,” Ellen says. Letter blocks and building toys are neatly organized everywhere and colorful kid paintings line the walls. Outside is a children’s paradise. Cooper, now 7, and his brother Pierce, 3, have the run of the family’s 10-acre farm in Round Hill.

When the couple bought the farm five years ago, they inherited a host of farm animals, including alpacas, chickens, turkeys and a guinea hen. Chad being a veterinarian and Ellen an animal lover, they couldn’t turn them away. Eventually, Chad says he'll add a couple Scottish Highland cattle and horses to the menagerie.

Having eggs to gather and animals to feed adds essential hands-on learning for kids who’ve grown up around computers. But it’s more than that. It’s a perfect reflection of Chad and Ellen’s philosophy that combining physical and mental activity is the best environment to stimulate learning and encourage total well-being. The Hamel’s also believe that the combination of technology with farming can lead to a sustainable food production model that improves the quality of food and allows more folks to efficiently produce their own food. 

The Hamel’s partners early on with The Coder School included both Loudoun Soccer and the Ashburn Ice House as well as MartialArts Blackbelt Academy (MBA, https://mbamajest.com/) on Ridgetop Circle in Sterling. The latter’s facility includes six classrooms for coding, robotics and STEM classes, as well as SAT Prep, Arts and Video Production and college counseling. MBA’s after school programs are facilitated by van transportation to 15 area schools. A McLean extension is coming this fall. 

With their partners, camps called “Kick ‘N Code” and “Skate ‘N Code” divide the day naturally into on- and off-screen activity. Kids can skate or play soccer in the morning and code in the afternoon. Both Chad and Ellen were college athletes and believe that the balance of physical activity with educational activity is important for kids to learn early on. Athletes have a natural affinity for coding, and coding can in turn support an athlete’s ability to excel in their sport. “For example, there is a lot of research about how computer gaming helps with faster decision-making, like the timing a baseball player develops in swinging a bat,” Chad says. So, it's only natural that they plan to partner with The Ballpark Loudoun, when it opens in Ashburn.

This summer, The Coder School students can enjoy full-day or half day camps where they make games, develop applications, learn robotics and build web pages. Camps such as Game Developer, Python Startup and RoboCode run through August 20th. (See https://www.thecoderschool.com/locations/ashburn/.)

The Coder School’s Code Coaches also are training at least one young adult at The Arc of Loudoun and have held classes at INMED Partnerships for Children, where the couple donated computers so underprivileged kids could stay up to speed with their online schoolwork over the last year. In addition, Chad and Ellen provide college scholarships to many of their current Code Coaches.

Looking at all they’ve accomplished, we can’t help believing both that coding helps you think faster, and that it must – somehow – add more hours to your day. Maybe it has something to do with getting up with the chickens?

“Many kids struggle in the classroom, and coding is a good way to help get them to focus and to get excited about learning. We see coding as a great way to teach students logic, critical thinking and problem solving through a FUN and interactive approach,” Chad says.

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