Interview with Justin Richards

justin richardsJustin Richards is the founder and CEO of Youth Digital. Justin was interested in technology and game development as a child, but discovered that teaching himself was a slow process of finding and following long tutorials on his own, and carefully researching his questions.
After volunteering with technology classes in Romanian orphanages and teaching technology to children in inner-city St. Louis, Richards started Youth Digital as a way for children and teenagers to channel their creativity into technological skills and innovative games. Youth Digital now has over 5,000 students in online classes, and YD kids have built their own 3D games, designed their own Minecraft mods, and released their own apps on the App Store.

Youth Digital: Why is technology education so important for students?
Justin: The real experiential knowledge that comes from learning about something by making it yourself is perhaps best suited for technology education. If we want to prepare kids for a digital world then the best place to start is to teach them to make their own video games, apps, etc (instead of just playing them!).
What is even more exciting is that in order to create an App you have to both USE the hard sciences, math, science, and programming and USE the soft sciences, design, storytelling, user experience. The process of learning through building and using skills is then made even more great when the end product is an iPod® App or a video game.
YD: How is technology education different today than it was when you were growing up?
Justin: When I was young I dreamed of working for Pixar. Animation seemed to be a way to bring my ideas and drawings to life in a way that was almost magical. Unfortunately for my generation there just were no good resources for learning how to create with technology. So I ended up having to teach myself with YouTube® and massive technical books from the library.
When I graduated college I was fortunate enough to get a job teaching web design to at-risk students in downtown St. Louis. The main difference I found was that the software now existed that would enable kids to build real digital projects. It was still hard to find, but the tools existed that would enable kids to create REAL apps, video games, and so much more.
But one thing hadn’t changed.
When I begin looking for curriculums to teach with I realized that there was still nothing out there. Most curriculums were using outdated software and practices and taught you how to make outdated projects. And getting started was a massive chore.
That is why we started Youth Digital. We are all incredibly passionate about giving the next generation the gift we longed for. The skills and tools to create real digital projects as kids. We have students who have published apps on the Appstore®, students who have won national game design competitions, and most of them before they even finished middle school.
That is what we are passionate about- helping them create and learn the way we dreamt of when we were kids.
And I don’t want to give too much away, but our new courses coming out this spring will be perfect for kids who like me, would love to work for Pixar®.
YD: Youth Digital’s newest online class, Mod Design 1, teaches kids how to mod for the popular game Minecraft. Everyone knows Minecraft is fun to play, but how can modding Minecraft help students prepare for the future?
Justin: Mod Design 1, just like all of our courses, allows students to learn a professional skill while creating something that they love. In this case it enables them to learn Java™ in a professional tool Eclipse while editing their favorite game, Minecraft.
Instead of learning Java to move a square across the screen to calculate temperature, students can USE it to add a character to their favorite game. Had I been given that opportunity as a child, I would have loved programming.
YD: So what makes Youth Digital courses special?
Justin: We are out to prove that eLearning doesn’t have to be boring. And one of the number one ways we do this, is by teaching real technology and having a blast being a bit absurd. Now we could explain For Loops like Wikipedia, which is extremely accurate,
In computer science a for loop is a programming language statement which allows code to be repeatedly executed. A for loop is classified as an iteration statement. The keyword used to declare a for loop is based on the heritage of the language and the prior programming languages it borrowed from, so programming languages that are descendants of or offshoots of a language that originally developed an iterator will often use the same keyword to name an iterator, e.g…” 
But… since that might not exactly resonate with kids, we explain For Loops with a fun song. Sure it’s a bit crazy, but when you’re trying remember how to have your mod randomly generate blocks, “loop, loop, skip to my loop” might even be more helpful than “an iteration statement.”

YD: What is most exciting to you about all of this?
Justin: At our Christmas party last December, we came up with the following statement to describe why we are so passionate about this, “We are incredibly fortunate to do: What we love, how we love, with those we love, for those we love.” Sure it might be a bit sappy, but it is true. Whenever we read encouraging feedback from a parent or read a blog by a student it exhilarates our entire team. We post each one for everyone to see. And the biggest thrill comes from meeting our online students in person for the first time.
YD: Now might be a good time to mention that Justin and other members of the Youth Digital team will be on tour this spring talking to schools, parents, and students about creating with technology. We will be staying mainly on the East Coast, but if you want us to come visit your school or group, just let us know!

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