Access For All: The White House Announces New Summer Jobs Initiative to Teach STEM to Low-Income Teens, Prepare Them for Jobs
1.24.12 | The startup Codecademy has just signed on as a partner in the White House’s Summer Jobs+ program to create a new course, Code Summer+, to teach the basics of computer programming to low-income teenagers.
The White House has more details in this blog post by White House Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra:
This effort will aim to train thousands of low-income youth how to build innovative apps online. Technology companies are encouraged to participate in at least two ways – contributing lessons to support application development for students completing coursework and pledges to hold meetups to support students in person.
There are few details available so far, perhaps because, according to this post, Codecademy’s founders first heard about the proposal just a week before the announcement. But it’s part of President Obama’s larger summer jobs program to try to get businesses, nonprofits and government to work together to help create jobs for minority students from low-income communities.
The White House also announced commitments from the Level Playing Field Institute and College Bound Brotherhood to focus on science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education and to help students obtain internships at technology companies.
Codecademy has garnered a lot of attention in recent weeks as more than 366,000 people signed up for Code Year, a free, year-long class designed to teach computer programming via lessons sent each week to participants’ inboxes. The program has also received a fair share of criticism from those who feel the pedagogical model is not that sophisticated and that learning to code is actually very difficult without a solid background in computer science or a related field.
And then last week there was this provocative post from ReadWriteWeb’s Marshall Kirkpatrick, who questions whether efforts from small tech startups like Codecademy can make a dent in the complex youth unemployment problem. Kirkpatrick raises some important issues about the exceptionally high unemployment rate among young people of color, and about our economy’s declining employment opportunities for unskilled workers.
Meaningful change, argues Kirkpatrick, will require more than just a few coding lessons.
He’s right that our job training programs desperately need to be modernized along with our school systems, and that low-income teens need access to technology and training for the jobs of the future. But taking Codecademy to task for its Ivy League pedigree seems like a misplaced critique in some ways.
A more important discussion would seem to focus on how to create effective programs to engage low-income kids in STEM fields and to create the necessary opportunities and retention support systems. We need STEM programs in the context of kids’ lives and interests, coupled with meaningful mentoring relationships with teachers, parents and other community adults—as well as a visible path to a good job. This is what the Level Playing Field Institute and the College Bound Brotherhood aim to do.
Through its Summer Math and Science Honors (SMASH) Academy, the Level Playing Field Institute offers residential summer classes in STEM fields at top universities like University of California at Berkeley and Stanford. And the College Bound Brotherhood, an initiative of the Mitchell Kapor Foundation, also headquartered in the San Francisco Bay Area, is launching a summer internship program to place young African American men in Bay Area tech companies so they can develop relationships and skills to pursue tech careers.
Let’s hope that as Codecademy develops this project with the White House it looks to these existing models and partnerships that have thought through the comprehensive support kids from low-income communities might need, and how to encourage their interest in new technologies.
Here at Spotlight we’ve written about a number of model community programs that aim to build on the talent and interests of these students – many of whom are often early adopters and innovative users of new technologies but lack access to structured learning opportunities focused on STEM.
Youth Radio’s Mobile Action Lab, for example, provides training to young people age 14 to 24 and matches them with developers to help them create new technology platforms based on their own designs and interests, and the interests of their peers.
As Lissa Soep, senior producer and research director of Mobile Action Lab, explains in a recent article at the National Science Foundation, the program aims to “lower barriers that have traditionally blocked teens and young adults from learning to develop innovative tech platforms, which is especially significant for those who haven’t had access to excellent, engaging STEM teaching in schools.”
The story’s author, Ellen Ferrante, continues:
Soep also explained how Mobile Action Lab provides a network between young people, especially low income youth and youth of color, with tech developers, engineers, and entrepreneurs; and prepares all graduates of Mobile Action Lab with the skill-sets to “configure design-development teams and play key roles in future tech-based projects—from conception through research, design and development, testing, launch and analysis.”
Another great example is Youmedia, the Chicago Public Library’s digital space for teens that is expanding to branch libraries in underserved communities throughout the city. The program provides access to laptops, and state of the art technologies like audio recording, smart boards, and video cameras, coupled with all the resources of the library. The effort mixes workshops and training with individual students’ interests. Trained mentors at each branch are available after school and on Saturdays to work with students.
We’ve also written about Youth APPLab, an after-school program in Washington, D.C., that teaches software and mobile application development. It’s one of several programs run by Uplift, Inc., which focuses on minority high school students with the goal of increasing the number of African Americans and Latinos in computer science fields. Students compete for internships with technology-based start-up companies in and around D.C.
Both Youth APPLab and Mobile Action Lab are former award winners of the Digital Media and Learning Competition.
Leshell Hatley, founder and executive director of Uplift, Inc., had one of the best responses I’ve read to date to the offensive essay Gene Marks posted at Forbes, “If I Were A Poor Black Kid.” In case you missed it, Marks argued that if they only worked harder and adopted simple tech tools, poor, black kids could find their way out of poverty. If only it were that simple.
The post got its share of critique and roasts after it went viral last month. But Hatley, who titled her piece “‘If I Were A Poor Black Kid’ - Wait, I Was A Poor Black Kid,” shares her own experiences as a black student, graduate student and as a teacher of “intelligent poor black kids” at Youth APPLab.
Her students, she writes, are hard workers and technically inclined, but she can’t guarantee their success because plenty of obstacles stand in their way (including folks like Marks).
Race still matters in our education system, and paying attention to the experiences of all students needs to be a part of the programming we plan for them.
Read her full post here.
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