He’s an 11-year-old self-taught programmer

Young Programmer Will Bernau is a sixth grader at Bergman Academy in Des Moines. He taught himself to code and calls himself a programmer, and he's working to spread awareness of the benefits of becoming a computer programmer.

As the saying goes: Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him to fish, and you feed him for life.

For Will Bernau, he’s teaching others to fish…using computer programming.

Bernau is a sixth grader at Bergman Academy in Des Moines who’s working to spread awareness about the importance of computer science and computer programming. He says he’s always been interested in technology but after attending a summer camp last summer in Iowa City, he’s been teaching himself computer programming.

He’s now certified in five different programming languages and working towards more.

“It started soon after that course last summer, I came home and was like I want to pursue this,” Bernau, 11, says. “Programming is one of the most valuable skills. It teaches you linear thinking and it shows you the steps you need to take to get this done. This is what I need to do to make this happen. And then attention to detail, one semicolon in the wrong spot and there it goes.”

Sparking a revolution

Each month Bergman Academy does a different Tzedakah or charity project for a community group around Des Moines.

Marcy Luft, Vice Principal of Bergman Academy, said projects range from donating to the local animal rescue league, to youth shelters and various nonprofit organizations.

But two months are left unscheduled each school year for student-led projects.

Bernau led a project in September to raise money for the Des Moines-based nonprofit Pi515.

“He’s very ambitious,” Luft said. “That project was super ambitious with a successful outcome.”

He raised $2,000 for Pi515.

Bernau said he knew he wanted to do some sort of project to help an organization dedicated to teaching people how to code.

He said Pi515, “Just seemed different.”

“There are all these other ones but they are also teaching immigrants as well as just like regular people, and I thought that was really cool,” Bernau says. “Because it’s like the old proverb, teach a man to fish and you feed him forever. Give a man a fish and you feed them for a day. If you teach somebody to program, you give them jobs and money.”

He says that since the fundraiser in September, there’s been a revolution and interest in tech has never been higher.

“Everybody is like this is kind of cool,” Bernau says. “We even have a technology course where you have to teach a skill, and I taught programming.”

Luft said Bergman Academy is searching for a full-time computer science teacher and second-grade teachers are having their students use Code.org.

She said a before school club will start soon focusing on coding.

“This was planned before Will’s project, it’s been in the works for awhile but it’s part of the upswing of interest in programming, coding and technology in general,” Luft says. “It helps our students understand technology literacy and how it can open doors for them.”

Teenage Programmer
Will Bernau holds a $2,000 check that he gave to the Des Moines-based nonprofit Pi515. Photo courtesy of Nancy Mwirotsi.

What’s next?

Bernau said he agrees with an initiative proposed by Iowa Governor Kim Reynolds to expand broadband access to rural Iowans.

He’s working on his own initiative.

“Everybody can learn how to program,” he says. “Other schools don’t have to do what I’ve done but just spreading awareness and letting people know it’s not that difficult. Sometimes hearing it’s not impossible and you don’t have to be a genius to do it, just knowing that teaches people that maybe they can take a stab at it.”

Bernau said he used the free online resources at  SoloLearn and Codeacademy to teach himself how to code.