FARGO — Nestled between Fit Body Boot Camp and ATA Martial Arts in south Fargo sits a dojo where students are exercising their minds rather than their bodies.
At Code Ninjas, 4480 23rd Ave. S., students ages 7-14 learn coding, robotics, math logic, problem-solving and other skills while building video games. The program is based on karate, where "ninjas" earn different belts as they advance.
The business is owned by John Rader and Brandon Hopperstad. The partners met about five years ago when Hopperstad and his wife, Allyson, started bringing their children to a day care run by Rader's wife, Michele.
Rader first learned of Code Ninjas through a friend. As someone who went to college for information technology management and works in the field today, he immediately saw the need here for such a program.
"We are solving a large problem," Rader said. "Kids in the U.S. are falling behind the rest of the world in STEM projects."
Rader approached Hopperstad about opening Code Ninjas together because he knew Hopperstad had been looking for a new business venture.
Hopperstad, who works full time as a trainer in the construction industry, was excited by the opportunity.
"I've always kind of dreamed of being a business owner. My father owns a business — it's him with my brother — but I never really found the right fit," he said.
The partners opened Code Ninjas on May 2. Both said they're very pleased with the feedback they've received from kids and parents thus far.
How it works
Ninjas are asked to commit to two hours a week during Code Ninjas' drop-in hours of 3:30-7:30 p.m. Monday through Thursday and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday.
Students grab a laptop when they arrive and begin working through the karate-based belt system.
"Through those belts, they’re learning how to write software, develop software, by building video games. With each belt, they’re constantly learning something new and building upon their previous knowledge," Rader said.
Code Ninjas provides the framework, but students can customize their game based on individual interests.
"More than likely, there's not going to be two exactly the same," Hopperstad said. "It could go from being a princess theme to a baseball theme. It can go in many different directions."
Senseis — typically college students, IT professionals or teachers — are on hand to answer ninjas' questions and help them get over any technical roadblocks.
Rader said it takes an average of four years to move through the entire program, but each student is allowed to advance at his or her own pace.
"We like to say it's self-paced, but not self-taught," Hopperstad said.
Parents have access to a Parent Dojo where they can track their child's progress and play the games he or she has created.
"It’s not a representation of what that game should be. It is the exact game that your son or daughter wrote. So, they can come home and the kids can walk them exactly through what they did," Rader said.
The end goal — the black belt — is for students to have their own game published in an app store.
"They get to keep it, own it, market it," Rader said.
In addition to regular drop-in hours, Code Ninjas offers camps during the summer on various STEM topics. Sessions will be held from 8-11:30 a.m. and noon to 3:30 p.m. For more information or to register, visit their website at www.codeninjas.com/camps/nd-fargo.
Code Ninjas also offers Parent's Night Out events on a select Friday or Saturday night of the month, where parents can drop the kids off from 6-9:30 p.m. for a special night of STEM activities and game building.