As the clock strikes seven, the participants ready themselves for an evening of building websites and learning code. “Congratulations, you’ve survived the first week.” Their teacher for the evening, Mathijs de Jong (23, Economics research master), has a big grin on his face as he looks around the room. Because Mathijs knows what’s up ahead. During the first week, the coding was all still quite basic (HTML, for those in the know), but things are going to get bumpy pretty soon.

De Jong’s joke can count on some laughs. But as he treats participants to a mass of coding lingo over the next five minutes, you soon hear the first sighs. And when he warns the class immediately afterwards (with the first latecomers trickling in, of course) that this is when things will be getting serious, you can almost feel spirits sinking.

Everybody helps each other

De Jong isn’t particularly surprised by the panicked whispering and looks of despair. “It always turns out OK,” he predicts before starting the third meeting of the Web Development boot camp. “You tend to give up sooner if you’re alone in front of your computer, but what’s great about these lessons is the social aspect. Everyone helps each other and wants to learn from the other students.”

Left: Mathijs de Jong (23, Economics research master) Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

The Turing Society was started in Rotterdam three years ago by students Tomas Moŝka and Teodor Cătăniciu. The Lithuanian and Romanian students were motivated by a wish to compensate for the paucity of IT and technology-related subjects in EUR’s curricula by offering the students coding lessons. But was there actually a demand for this kind of knowledge in the university’s student body?

Yes, it turns out. By now, hundreds of students have participated in the Turing Society’s workshops, boot camps and events (see frame). “But it amounts to more than just lessons,” explains board member Daphne Cornelisse. “An entire community has developed around our activities. Students keep coming back, we have also organised loads of other activities and the boot camps are becoming more and more popular.”

Cutting their teeth

Since all the coding jargon goes way over my head, I take my time checking out who has shown up. And it’s true: the 30 students cutting their teeth on CSS aren’t easy to pigeonhole. For example, I’m slightly surprised to see that while the male students are in the majority, it’s only by a few participants. “That’s one of the things I particularly like about this boot camp,” says German student Sarah Fürstenberg (19, Management of International Social Challenges). “It doesn’t matter which faculty you’re from – we’re from all over the university.”

For a student like Sarah, coding and building websites couldn’t be more remote from the kind of expertise tested during ESSB’s examinations. “But what I have noticed in my job is that it never hurts to know a bit about this sort of thing. I don’t imagine myself doing this at home alone. Here we’re all in the same boat. The participants all run into the same problems, which is why you support each other.”

Sarah Fürstenberg (19, Management of International Social Challenges)

Teacher De Jong rounds off his explanation half an hour into the lesson. He calmly seats himself behind his desk and tells everyone to set to work on the assignments. In a regular tutorial, this is when everyone gets back to Instagram, catches up with friends or makes plans for the evening. But not here: two students make off, but the rest stay glued to their laptops.

Make a good website

“Of course we have someone drop out every now and then, but on the whole we see that students are very motivated,” says Cornelisse. “And we always get more applications than we have room for, so we can actually make a selection.” To give everyone an opportunity to take part, the Society will be organising even more boot camps over the next few months. “I’m organising a boot camp myself in February, together with a few other people. It will focus on ‘machine learning’, which is becoming more and more prominent. For example, Netflix uses it for personalised recommendations, and Snapchat uses it place filters on your face.”

IBCoM-student Nadine Steenstra (19) Image credit: Aysha Gasanova

After two hours of concentrated coding in Polak 1.10, the lesson is over. I make the rounds and ask the students what led them to enrol in the boot camp. For all sorts of reasons, it turns out. From sheer curiosity to an urgent request on the part of their employer. “I wanted to learn something new besides the subjects in my degree programme,” says second-year IBCoM student Nadine Steenstra (19). “And this is definitely a challenge – I don’t have that much experience in this area. What am I hoping to learn? I’d really like to be able to build a proper website. But it’s not just that. They’re a really nice lot at Turing too.”

The Turing board members’ ambitions extend beyond a full room of students in Polak on a Tuesday evening. “In Lithuania they’ve taken things even further with their local Turing Society,” says Cornelisse. “One of the founders over there has continued to build up the Turing programme. They don’t just organise activities for university students, but also for secondary school pupils, for example. We intend to expand in this area too,” she explains.

Turing Students Rotterdam is part of the Turing Society, a foundation that focuses on setting up a complete ecosystem for technical education, with the underlying objective of ‘training a new generation of world-class coders’. Last week student Maksut Gavaz was presented with the 2018 SURF Education Award 2018 for his work in helping to establish and develop the Turing Society both in the Netherlands and in Lithuania. He has also been chairman of Turing Students Rotterdam.