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Local Camps Try To Recruit Girls, Minorities For Coding

Vincent Hunt (background) leads a group of teenage girls in Creators Camp, a program aimed at helping girls refine their coding skills.

Computer Coding is the new must-know skill businesses and states are hanging their economic futures on. Throughout the summer, Florida students from kindergarten through 12th grade participated in camps geared toward helping them learn computer languages. Some will continue this learning throughout the fall. But while kids learn sequences and symbols, they need other lessons beyond technical skills to get ready for a diverse work world.

The National High Magnetics lab in Tallahassee is hosting a group of young teenage girls. They’ve been busy building tiny computer processors the size of credit cards. This is creators’ camp. But even as they work on their processors, they’re also learning something else. How to be collaborative and creative.

“I honestly don’t think the soft skills are incorporated enough in businesses or schools," says Sandi Chavez, one of the leaders of Creators Camp. "They don’t show these young, amazing kids how to communicate properly or how to collaborate—so when they grow up with that mentality, it’s hard to break when you're an adult.

"Those who understand the 'how' will always how a job. Those who understand the 'why' will always be the boss."

Her partner, Vincent Hunt, agrees.

“The technology is simply a tool," he says. " That’s your tool box, the wrenches. My dad gave me a quote. He said, 'those who understand the 'how' will always how a job. Those who understand the 'why' will always be the boss'.”

Chavez and Hunt worry the focus on learning coding takes away from other need-to-know skills, like how to partner and communicate, and work in groups  -- where people may come from different cultures and nationalities.

Shemuel Roberts and Meagan Bunnell work on a coding project at the Code Craft Lab in the Florida A&M University Developmental Research School.

Nearby, Florida A&M University’s Developmental Research School has drawn a third group of students, again, largely minority. This lab is a partnership between the school, the city’s business incubator, Domi Station, and Code Craft lab. FAMU DRS student Shemuel Roberts was selected by his principal to attend:

“Before this, I wanted to be a digital architect, and like, I did research on that, and it says coding is a part of that. So I am still on my same track, but I wanted to learn coding so I can be better at what I want to do," he says.

Shemuel is starting his career path early. This is his first experience with coding, and if he keeps at it, he’ll be among a minority of coders of color in the system.  Program Director Meagan Bonnell says there are plans to expand Code Craft Lab to more schools and community centers in the fall, with a focus on low-income neighborhoods.

“We want to make sure everyone has access. FAMU plays a huge role in Tallahassee.” 

FAMU is an historically black university. The majority of its students are African American and female.

Organizations like Code Craft Lab, Creators Camp are focusing their efforts on girls and minority kids. That’s because when it comes to STEM, and especially coding, there’s a gender and racial gap—one that appears to be growing.

According to a 2015 report looking at the makeup of some of the largest tech companies, African Americans made up less than 4-percent of their workforce. Latino’s didn’t fare much better. Women, who make up half of the U.S. population, were only a third of the workforce figures in the study. Which is why, at Riley Elementary School black and brown boys and girls are starting off learning coding and collaboration early.

Fourth grader Kaylynn Robinson learned PBS Kids' Scratch Jr. Build-a-game program at Riley Elementary School during the Summer.

“Well, you have different characters from PBS kids, and it’s a whole bunch and there are different backgrounds and you just design how you like it," says Kaylynn Robinson, a fourth grader at Riley.

She participating in a coding camp using the Scratch Junior program. It’s a starter system, aimed at getting kids familiar with the general concepts using a click, drag and drop symbol scheme complete with characters, backgrounds and pre-programmed motions.

“It’s like you make a sequence, and you just put it all together, put your mind to it and you’ll have it.”   

And maybe one day, Kaylynn will be able to integrate the still largely segregated world of computer programming.