Inside a cool, industrial workspace on New York Avenue in Washington, D.C., a handful of young coders sit, hard at work on a Saturday afternoon. They’re not Ivy League-educated (yet), nor are they building the next Facebook or Foursquare (yet). In fact, they’re still in high school. What could have prompted these teens to dedicate their precious weekend hours to tapping away on keyboards in concentrated silence?
The students are participating in a nonprofit program called CodeNow, and it’s a gross societal oversight that it’s taken this long for such an important endeavor to get off the ground. This isn’t the first write-up about CodeNow, and it surely won’t be last — in year since the program was founded, it has deservedly caught the attention of The White House Office of Public Engagement and piqued the interest of several tech bloggers.
But the nonprofit program isn’t hoping to acquire fame and fortune through media coverage. CodeNow is seeking to revolutionize the way young people are exposed to technology — and so far, they’re doing a pretty admirable job.
CodeNow began when founder Ryan Seashore observed a lack of programming opportunities for underrepresented youth in Washington. Recognizing that coding is this century’s “new literacy,” he sought to ensure that curious high school students could have the chance to explore the basics of computer programming and build a foundation upon which they could potentially impact not only themselves and their communities, but the wider, plugged-in world.
There are five key components to the program that involve weekend trainings (Lego Mindstorms are involved), online course work, and consecutive weekend boot camps for those who complete the two-day weekend sessions. For students who put in the required time, complete a project, and keep up with attendance, a Netbook that they can use to develop their skills awaits. The goal is to keep students connected and coding long after their time at CodeNow ends, through networks of alumni meetings and hackathons.
As Seashore himself isn’t a coder, the program relies on a devoted network of mentors and volunteers willing to offer their time and resources to the students. On a recent Saturday afternoon in April, self-proclaimed Rubyist Matt Yoho, of LivingSocial’s Hungry Academy, instructed students on Ruby basics via the open source application Hackety Hack. Before he began detailing the basics of the coding language, Yoho was deliberate in providing context for students. “The language itself is meant to be easy to use, natural to use, fun to use,” he said. “The idea is that we as Rubyists, we try to be nice to each other, try to be nice to other people. I think it’s a really important philosophy and important to the people that use Ruby. People help each other out.”
Within minutes, the students were executing simple scripts.
Perhaps one of the most important and impressive priorities of CodeNow is its emphasis on corralling young women into the computer science world: about 40 percent of CodeNow’s first BootCamp class were female. This number is encouraging, especially when contrasted with the dismal 18.2 percent of undergraduate women who chose to study computer science in the U.S. in 2010.
How is CodeNow attracting such an untraditional demographic? “A lot of it is word of mouth,” Seashore acknowledged. “We make a real effort to get girls involved. A couple of the girls currently in class heard about us from friends of friends. Of the 12 in here today, five are girls. That’s a pretty good ratio.”
It is a pretty good ratio. One of the goals of CodeNow is to connect with a population brimming with untapped potential and support individuals in acquiring the computer programming skills that are often not taught in public schools. As Paul Krugman recently pointed out, America’s unemployment rate for workers under 25 currently stands at 16.5 percent — not quite as bad as Spain or Ireland, but certainly not good. If America is to remain competitive and buoyant in the global arena, it’s vital that its citizens — its future — be armed with the tools necessary to innovate, cultivate, and flourish.
In the not-so-distant future, Seashore hopes to expand the program to other cities, including New York and San Francisco, where CodeNow can continue instilling in students the idea that they have the power to to build things, to problem-solve, and to change the world. Because they can.