Brendan Ballon of Amesbury is a computer whiz kid. He says he has always been intrigued by the process of programming: writing code to teach the computer to perform tasks or solve problems.
“I was definitely software before hardware,” says Ballon, 11.
Django Keyes, 12, who lives in Salisbury, came into his love of computers from the other side. He likes the physical tinkering of building machines from parts: processors, motherboards, hard drives.
“I was hardware before software,” he says.
Yet despite their fundamental differences, the two boys have become fast friends. They both took Level 2 of the six-week Intro to Programming class at Code & Circuit, an independent after-school program in a spotlessly renovated space in one of the old mill buildings of downtown Amesbury.
Kids like Brendan and Django take a hands-on approach to computer engineering, working with laptops, iPads, small robotics, and a 3-D printer to understand the concepts.
The learning center is the brainchild of Ken Aspeslagh, a lifelong computer connoisseur who cofounded Ecamm, which produces Mac software products, with his twin brother, Glen.
Looking for a way to pass along his own enthusiasm for computers — he likes to quote the futurist British science writer, Arthur C. Clarke: “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” — Aspeslagh opened the doors on Code & Circuit in January 2014. Recruiting students almost exclusively by word of mouth, he has generated enough interest that he now has a staff of seven part-time instructors.
“We tend to fill up quickly,” he says.
The students and parents the school serves are apparently pleased with the results. Now approaching its third anniversary, Code & Circuit counts much of its enrollment in returning students.
“It’s so cool to see a kid I had when he was in fifth grade come back when he’s in seventh, basically unrecognizable,” Aspeslagh says.
Though he is 38 and the father of two young girls, Aspeslagh can seem like a big kid himself when he demonstrates his latest high-tech gadgets for his students.
“I wanted to show you the new robot I got,” he tells a class of six. Called Ergo Jr, a product of the French company Poppy, it’s a small robotic arm with six motors that allow lifelike movements.
Aspeslagh is tall and lanky, with a boyish haircut, a penchant for nerdy-cool T-shirts, and big wide-open eyes that seem forever enchanted with the world. He seems like a born teacher. But he’s already thinking ahead to a time when he’s maybe not quite as involved in the daily operations of Code & Circuit as he has been.
He’s applying for nonprofit status for the school, and considering a possible expansion to other locations.
“You create something because you want it to exist,” he says.
The students at Code & Circuit live primarily in the Merrimack Valley, with a few traveling from as far as southern Maine. Some are home-schooled; some attend private schools. Brendan goes to Barnard School in South Hampton, N.H., and Django is a seventh-grader at River Valley Charter School in Newburyport.
Code & Circuit offers classes from kindergarten to high school levels. Fees range from $35 to $250, depending on the length of the program. There are lessons in 3-D printing, Lego robotics, and the use of iPad apps such as Kodable, ScratchJr, and Osmo Coding. One class recently designed and launched its own 3-D-printed model rockets.
Aspeslagh grew up in Groton and attended Wheaton College in Norton, where he believes he and his brother were the first students to major in computer science. As kids, they were drawn to computers in the basement of their best friend’s house, where the boy’s father, a software engineer, kept a virtual playground of the latest computer innovations. His workshop included a laser printer, an early Computervision system (a pioneer in computer-aided design), and “a whole digital circuitry section,” Aspeslagh recalls.
“This stuff was so unbelievably cooler than anything anybody had at the time,” he says. As a result, he and his brother “were writing code at 10 or 11, even before we knew what it was called.”
Tom Kent, the software engineer, was unaware of Code & Circuit until Aspeslagh contacted him recently.
“Lately, I’ve become more aware of the need to share knowledge with other people,” says Kent, who is currently consulting with the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. “It’s delightful to hear you had any measurable influence at all.”
Almost three decades after Aspeslagh’s introduction to computers in Kent’s workshop, his own children and their peers are growing up in a world that has become inextricably linked with computer technology. Despite what Clarke once wrote, there is in fact no real magic to computers, he tells his students, not if you understand the basics of computer science.
“Some of these kids come in, and they’re out-of-this-world smart,” Aspeslagh says. “That’s cool. But anybody with a strong interest can learn it.”
Part of the goal of Code & Circuit, he says, is to get the students to continue their computer studies in their spare time, “instead of gaming.” It sure seems to be working: Both Brendan and Django say they’ve built computers by watching YouTube tutorials.
Another classmate, Brayden Toth of Newbury, 14, says he’s working on a project of his own. For him, the sky is truly the limit: He’s designing a launch vehicle that could reach orbit.