Marcus Robinson helps facilitate a coding workshop. (Courtesy CodeNow)
Marcus Robinson comes off as an earnest, competent guy in his explainer videos. He looks like he has a good sense of humor -- he might even be a bit of a joker with his friends -- but he can also clearly get immersed in a project when he’s passionate about it. Robinson is one of several CodeNow student alumni involved in making introductory coding videos to help encourage underrepresented groups, like students of color and girls, to give coding a try.
“Coding is problem-solving,” Robinson explained. “To work on finding where the errors are and how to fix them is what I love. Even if I’m frustrated with it, I’ll always get back on my feet and make sure that at the end of the day I find the solution.”
This approach to coding has become something of a personal mantra for Robinson in all areas of his life, but he doesn’t think he would have had the confidence to make coding videos or see the world the way he does if he hadn’t been exposed to coding in high school through a CodeNow workshop.
“Finding my talent allowed me to delve deeper into what goes on in this world, like how computers are built, or how my gaming console is built, or that people are trying to embed chips into people,” Robinson said.
Learning to code gave him a lens to explore other things in the world and it has made him more curious. Before participating in CodeNow, Robinson said he didn’t really like learning new things and didn’t have a lot of confidence in himself or his ability to learn. Now he’s at Syracuse University studying software engineering.
“My confidence had been really low, and this was a whole new world for me,” Robinson said.
He was intimidated when he first attended the workshop in New York, but soon found he liked coding and was even willing to do more research on his own to hone his skills. Now he wants other kids who look like him and who’ve had a tough time finding motivation in school to learn coding, too. That’s why he agreed to help make the CodeHow videos, even though being on camera made him shy at first.
“Every time I go to a training session, or when I’m on camera, I want to make sure that you understand that this is something that is seen as hard. But everything is hard until you learn it and get to practice it,” said Elizabeth Boahen, another student-trainer and current high school senior from New York City.
Like Robinson, she found being on camera intimidating at first, but she says it’s important for her peers to see someone like her, an African-American woman, teaching coding. It’s not a common sight, but she’s clear that when she’s on camera demonstrating a coding concept, making little mistakes, fixing them, moving on, she’s modeling what learning should look like.
CodeNow, a nonprofit coding education organization founded in 2011, recently launched a YouTube channel of explainer videos starring students like Robinson and Boahen. CodeNow hosts coding workshops in partnership with trainers from tech companies, but so far they have reached youth only in and around big cities like New York and San Francisco. The "CodeHow" videos are meant to extend the reach of the organization’s coding curriculum beyond big cities on the coasts.
“We can’t be everywhere, but we want to provide as much value to the learn-to-code community as possible,” said CodeNow founder Ryan Seashore.
The videos are short, usually under four minutes, and introduce basic concepts like GitHub and how to access it, variables, conditionals and looping. Seashore said the idea for the videos came from the alumni network because students weren’t finding tutorials online with which they connected. He hopes the format makes the topic feel approachable to curious kids looking to get started, but who don’t necessarily have computer science classes in school or afterschool opportunities to learn.
The videos themselves are a little stiff; the students were given scripts written by CodeNow staff and told to interject their personalities where it made sense. The students make comparisons to their favorite video games, concerts and common young-adult situations.
“We workshopped how you would explain [the concepts], what are different analogies and have them put their stamp on it,” Seashore said of the videomaking process.
Boahen said it made her feel more relaxed to know she was encouraged to put herself into the videos and helped her see that she can make a positive impact on her peers.
The workshops that Robinson and Boahen attended are much more intense than these explainer videos. Students apply and are accepted based on demonstrated curiosity and interest in coding. They don’t have to be top-shelf students, but Seashore said, “There’s a certain level of investment that students need to have.”
The program is focused on communities that aren't well represented in programming, like African-Americans, Latinos and women. They actually attract almost as many girls as they do boys.
"It’s just as important for the boys to be comfortable working with girls as it is for girls to be comfortable working with boys," Seashore said.
Eighty percent of the students who participate qualify for free and reduced-price lunch at their schools.
Volunteers from companies like Adobe and Bloomberg are the trainers, using a curriculum that CodeNow developed. Many big companies have corporate responsibility programs that encourage volunteering, and this program makes good use of employee skills.
It’s important for companies to be part of the solution to the lack of diversity in tech fields, Seashore said. Major tech companies, such as Twitter, Facebook and Google, count African-Americans as roughly two percent of the workforce, despite constituting more than 13 percent of the U.S. population.
Students attend for a full weekend, acquainting themselves with the programming language Ruby and progressing to build a high-low game and then on to more advanced topics. The curriculum doesn’t use any block languages, and CodeNow prides itself on the fact that from day one students are programming in real languages.
There’s a two-week break when students get homework and practice their skills on Codecademy before returning for another intensive weekend. By the end, they’ve learned some encryption skills, met real professionals working in the field and have the building blocks to continue learning on their own.
“When I finished it, I could see it as something I could actually see myself doing,” Boahen said.
She attended the workshop as a freshman in high school and then started a coding club at her school. More than that, she’s learned not to freak out if she doesn’t understand something. “Even outside of the programming world, all the time I think about problems,” Boahen said.
In a class about the proliferation of nuclear weapons, she was having trouble understanding why some people object to nuclear power. So she broke the problem down into different parts and thought about how she’d solve a power shortage and what obstacles might get in her way.
“I basically broke down history into code,” Boahen said.
Because many of the CodeNow participants are minors, the organization doesn’t allow the corporate volunteers to stay in touch with participants, but it does encourage an active alumni network. The organization just piloted summer internships in computer science for several of its alumni and hopes to expand that program.
More than that, Seashore says 40 percent of the program’s alumni have gone on to study in a computer science-related field.
“These kids are absolutely brilliant," Seashore said. "They just didn’t have the opportunity."
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