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November 08, 2017 | Tom Ballard

Region breaks world record for coding

Guiness World RecordBy Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA

Let’s all cheer; the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region now holds the top spot in the Guinness Book of World Records for the most people learning to code at the same time.

For 30 minutes yesterday, students in more than 50 schools, mostly in Knox County, participated in an amazing experience that elevated their awareness of coding while also breaking the world record. And, in what was a unique personal opportunity, I got an insider’s view of the initiative while also providing a public service.

As noted in this article from Monday, the goal was to have slightly more than 1,000 students simultaneously watching an instructional video and working on their computers to learn more about coding, a critical skillset for the workforce of the future.

The counting and verification process stopped a little after 2 p.m. yesterday after the record was achieved – 1,058 verified participants. We’ll start again in the next few days to validate information on hundreds of additional students that should significantly increase the final total.

So, how did I become more than a reporter?

It started with a request that came from Brandon Bruce of Cirrus Insight, one of the organizers, who asked if I would work alongside Philip Robertson, the New York City-based Adjudicator from the Guinness organization. His role was to verify the participation, and Knoxville was to provide someone to help. Robertson has been an Adjudicator for 12 years and handles about 50 competitions a year.

Together, we verified the paperwork that each school submitted – photos documenting the beginning and ending times in each classroom, a panoramic video showing the students actually working, and two authentication forms for each classroom.

In other words, I got to play the role of an auditor, something my wife says I was meant to be!

Homeroom for the event and the validation work was the L&N STEM Academy operated by Knox County Schools where every class participated. As part of my work, I visited nine coding groups – about half the students – and got a firsthand look at the enthusiasm they and their teachers felt for the project.

That passion started with Becky Ashe, the school’s exuberant Principal, but also included students like Jada Bennett who escorted me to each classroom and other students with whom I interacted before, during, and after the event.

With any first-ever event, there were unexpected developments. In the case of yesterday’s initiative, it was the process of validating the numbers. Input, emailed from each participating school, took longer than many expected. Knox County Schools Superintendent Bob Thomas and Great Schools Partnership President Buzz Thomas were among dignitaries who came for what was a planned 12 noon announcement that had to be postponed until a little after 2 p.m.

In many respects, it reminded me of an election count. Information comes in from each precinct, is verified, and posted. The anxiety of the candidates and their supporters grows, waiting for the final tally. Then, when you know the winner, cheers go up.

That’s what happened yesterday, but the wait was worth it. Knoxville is on the world map!

The initiative was championed by Bruce, a well-known local business executive, and Caleb Fristoe, Project Manager with CodeTN. In between his work securing the validation information in a Dropbox site and showing it to Robertson and me for us to do our verification work, we were able to ask Fristoe about the importance of the activity.

“Coding is the no-collar job of the future,” he said. “We wanted to demystify computer science. We see it as a PR opportunity for computer science in Appalachia.”

Will there be an effort next year to break the region’s just-established record? I overheard Bruce and Fristoe contemplating that possibility.



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