Friday, November 14, 2014

unCon 2014 Session: Bringing Code Literacy to Inner City Youth

Post by Adam Zand, principal at Almost Ubiquitous

This important session was led by Micah Martin, an 18 year-old Boston resident who codes and is active with Resilient Coders, a program focused on making web technology more available to kids who might not otherwise be exposed to it. He was joined by Tyler Mitchell and Fredy Meto, peers at Resilient Coders. Heather Carey, executive director of Mass TLC’s Education Foundation joined the session and there was active participation from the large audience.

The Need - A Personal Story
Micah set the stage with issues faced and the need for access and positive social change.
“Many people start using computers and coding as self-taught and then curiosity takes over. In my environment, the distractions take over and there are too many other temptations or even stigmas about education. We are being left in the dark too much. The inner city itself makes learning hard. Finding out about coding is hard. There are no formal classes in schools.”

His story is compelling and instructive as we look at helping kids break out from institutional and self-imposed boundaries, “At 15, I was in and out of foster homes, DYS. I tried to remain humble, but knew I was intelligent. Never used it. I didn’t see how that would make me money. I was tired of institutions. Change happened, when I changed how I looked at myself and the paradigm.”

Heather Carey shared a higher level look at tenets to guide us: Awareness, Exposure, Educate, Master, Thirsty learners. She talked about the importance of reaching kids beyond the sons and daughters of techies. She asked what can we do better as a tech community to reach a larger amount of students in urban areas?

Resources and Reaching Out
We started looking at groups and institutions. Chris Swenor from VSnap shared an economic benefit of working with inner city coders. He thought it would it be cheaper to have an inner city agency to improve. Less need to outsource. He wants to hire and work with passionate, skilled people.

Heather mentioned South End Technology Center as resource. Resilient Coders is connecting to other nonprofits, but it’s hard to get a plan down and coordinate. There is not really a place to work together. This isn’t systematic or organized. She is working to increase connections and collaboration through her work at the Education Foundation and mentioned monthly meet-ups they have started to host.

Heather asked Micah, how do we reach your friends?
Micah shared, “the main issue is development and maturity. We are told to have a negative self image - change the paradigm of an inner city kid who wants to improve and get opportunity. My friends are genuine and would get motivated by personal satisfaction and success. Overcoming something hard like coding helps you learn and grow. There’s a lot of failure in coding.”

Dan Bricklin, trustee at MassTLC added: “Failure is important. Success happens when you make something work. The coming together and the process of next steps is positive. Feedback from peers and the little steps will keep us going. Better to look at that before thinking about success in the app store. The steps along the way of coding is a type of life. How do you get that part - a drug so to speak - accepted as fun and build passion that gets people hired.”

Another participant shared that interaction with the physical world interests people. Having a maker space would help and robots in the schools to work with as ongoing activities.

We started a list of elements that could help:
  • Maker space
  • Awareness
  • In school access
  • After-school access
  • Resources (books, classes)
  • Mentors, volunteers from companies
  • Retreats, safe spaces
  • Site visits to companies
  • Internships for high school students at tech companies

The audience asked Micha if places like the South End Technology Center and lab at Madison Park HS are helpful to people?

Micha said maker centers and labs are interesting. However, every neighborhood and actual street has gang issues, history and potential conflict. A maker space or community center could turn sour.

Heather talked about work with schools being tough and the need for money and resources.
Micha shared, “In 9th grade, I was at Boston Latin. I learned so much quickly and was given O’Reilly coding books. I was expelled early. When I went back to normal school, I didn’t have any access to books or a facility.”

Heather mentioned CoderDojo, an online open source curriculum for kids. A Nokia employee is doing it in Somerville. After-school is a possibility and company involvement as a shared effort.

Dan Bricklin wondered if there was a virtual solution to access to knowledge and resources. Dan lives on Skype screen sharing. He asked if we should we provide mentors on Skype? People available to answer questions. “We have tons of O’Reilly books that we no longer need and could gift. How does one do the mentoring and connecting on Skype - how would you figure out who would be a good fit?”

Micah liked the idea, but need to have the kids realize that this is possible, ignite the passion. “I had it with game programming around 13 and 14. There is a technology gap in inner city. If you have Facebook and YouTube, many will think that is enough.” Micah shares his smart phone for access. Micha sees the potential and education of Internet. He stopped going to school at 16, but taught himself and got to go to college. “Coding can be cool in my peer group. My friends really like the idea of me doing it and making money.”

Micah shared that an off-site retreat would be cool, but that gangs will still be an issue. People need to change how they look at themselves. Eventually people grow out of it and realize they were being manipulated or put into risk for no personal benefit.

Fredy Meto, a peer at Resilient Coders shared that one of the things that attracted him were large groups of different people being involved - former DYS, gang members and prisoners. A problem with a Maker Space is you might have 5-7 people trying to teach 500 people. Lack of quality. If given the resources, he’d hire or involve as many mentors as could in order to go to DYS, prisons to teach.  

Some companies do mentoring and school visits as one day to help. Corporations need to be asked and connected. However, it really needs to be an ongoing organized effort - not just one offs.

Programming in Schools and Pressure on Government
Massachusetts State Senator Karen Spilka has filed legislation to help. She filed a coding in schools bill. There is an economic development bill that contains $1M for coding in school. Schools are being selected by MassCan (Massachusetts Computing Attainment Network). The Senator wants to build on that effort and shared that it helped her understand the issues by meeting with Resilient Coders.

She said, “The challenge is - we will never be enough, but more voices will get this from pilot program to curriculum. We need this as a country. In the short-term, people continue to mentor, contact Council and similar organization, get out there, look at overcoming the barriers as a pilot group. At same time, join forces and reach out to State Senator Spilka’s office and MassTLC Education Foundation. More voices mean it gets heard - stand out from the 8000 other bills that get filed annually. This is important to business, community.”

Heather said the Education Foundation is recruiting CXO signatures to show policy makers how important they feel computer science education in our schools is for the future of our kids.

Galen Moore, editor in chief at BostInno asked if coding is the best direction and use of resources: “Should we look at digital marketing, SEO, digital strategy?” Dan Bricklin answered, that “marketing is selling something. Coding is teaching what needs are and solving problems. That moves into wider entrepreneurship and life skills. Establish need and determine what will solve it.”

One idea was to adopt a “Start-up Institute” model with benefits to companies. If you mentor, you get access to potential employees. We can also have corporate coding or similar business projects that can be tackled short-term in a school.

Next Steps
In our wrap up, Heather asked if we should we all commit to doing something?
Micah asked us for the goals, and what an ideal program and collaboration would look like. What are the roadblocks?

There is a need for high level social change, but it is critical to have support at the grassroots with a combination of nonprofits, companies, educators and mentors.

Senator Spilka said, make sure Boston schools reach out to  MassCan funding so they can be part of next round. Heather can help make that connection.

Can we get lots of these people together? Tech companies opening up doors to high school students for internships.

Micah asked is there a group that can connect these parties?
David Delmar, founder of Resilient Coders and Heather are having meetings about this. Meet ups will be open.

Sign up for MassTLC’s #RandomActsOfCode, December 8-12. Build the connections. Meet up and continue these discussions. Get involved with Resilient Coders and reach out to communities in need.

Micah left us with the challenge: “Do something.” People need to link together to bring coding to inner city youth.

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