By Margaret King
Mika Okamoto is only in ninth grade, but already she has been recognized for her coding skills. Earlier this year she won the local Congressional App Challenge by designing an app to help teachers choose students randomly to answer questions or team up for group projects.
Now Mika, who attends Canyon Crest Academy in Carmel Valley, is boosting her coding skills – and exploring her career options – by taking a 9-month series of online Front-End Web Development classes through Futures at UC San Diego Extension.
“I definitely want to go into computer science, but I haven't decided what I want to do in that field,” Mika says. “I’m just trying to narrow the field by learning more about a bunch of topics.”
Extension created Futures to allow high school students to master high-demand career skills while earning Extension credits. The program offers both online and in-person classes, although current in-person classes have been moved online due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Courses are grouped under headings like Program Your Future for coding and Manage Your Future for business management. Scholarships are available to cover course costs.
Mika started coding when she was in elementary school. “My parents introduced me to it, and I really liked it,” she says, adding that she is mostly self-taught. “I used some online resources to learn it by myself. I didn’t take any formal classes.”
Last summer Mika heard about the Congressional App Challenge, where students in each congressional district compete to build the best app. She created an Android app called CERA (Classroom Easy Random Arrangements), which gives teachers a quick way to call on students or divide them into groups randomly.
“I figured it would help teachers in my school,” Mika says. “When teachers need to make groups, sometimes it takes them a long time, or sometimes they pick based on talent, which seems unfair. I decided to make an app that was more convenient.”
In January Rep. Scott Peters announced that Mika had won the contest for the 52nd Congressional District. “I was really surprised because I made the app just as a fun thing on the side during the summer,” she says. Her app is now available on Google Play Store.
Meanwhile, last September Mika decided to get more serious about coding by enrolling in an online series of three Futures web development courses. “My mom has done some web development, and I always thought it was interesting,” Mika says. “I wanted to branch out and try it.”
She recently completed the second class in the series, HTML5 and CSS, taught by Phillip Ballo, who assigned students to design a series of websites.
First was a website for an imaginary business. Mika takes part in robotics competitions through her high school, so she dreamed up a site for a fictional company that makes robots for kids. Her second website, on the theme “Saving Chubby Unicorns,” is about protecting endangered rhinos.
For the third project, students created websites about themselves. “I included information about my interests and hobbies,” says Mika. “I put some stuff about robotics, and movies and books I like,” including her favorite genre, dystopian fiction.
For Mika, the coding aspect of web development is relatively easy, but the design side is more challenging. “The more fun part for me was coding the website itself,” she says. “I’m not really good at design, but I also enjoyed making the website look aesthetically pleasing.”
Even though the classes are online, Mika says instructors are always available to help when students encounter problems. “The teachers respond very fast, like they would in a regular class, and they are very helpful,” she says.
Also, there are plenty of opportunities to get feedback from the instructors. “Every week we would turn in our projects, and Mr. Ballo would give us feedback on it, and there were also discussion boards where we answered questions, and he would give us feedback on those, too,” she says.
After high school, Mika says she “definitely” wants to study computer science; colleges she is thinking about include MIT and UC San Diego. The Futures classes have helped her focus her thinking about college and career possibilities.
“Mr. Ballo talked a lot about jobs that were available for web developers and what kind of skills would be in demand,” she says. “He also talked about how we can use the websites we built in our resumes.”
Mika says she would recommend Futures classes to friends or classmates. “They have helped me get a really good basis in the field,” she says. “If I were to go into web development, having these Futures classes has given me a strong basis to start on.”