Acerlia Bennet, a 17-year-old New Yorker from the Bronx, likes to read heady political news, often twice, from top to bottom, to make sure she’s fully comprehending the story. But she knows she’s unique: Her peers spend more time sharing memes. So at a local hackathon sponsored by Code/Interactive last summer, Bennet and three other high schoolers built a preliminary website that could translate hard news into more entertaining teen-speak. The algorithm, written with the programming language Python over a 72-hour weekend, extracts text from newspapers and replaces big, confusing words with simpler terms. “That way, they read it and know what’s going on,” Bennet says.
That type of out-of-the-box thinking — and the deep understanding of code to make it a reality — is the end goal of Code/Interactive (C/I), a nonprofit based in New York City. Since 2010, C/I has helped public schools better teach computer science. The program, which currently counts about 5,000 students in six states, is comprehensive: As early as third grade, kids begin experimenting with simple, block-based coding. By the time they reach high school, C/I is preparing them to excel on the Advance Placement (AP) computer science exam.
Besides equipping students with invaluable coding and web development skills, C/I provides teacher training and curricula for the classroom; hosts hackathons and arranges office tours at tech companies for students; and provides a select number of full-ride college scholarships, attracting those teens who otherwise wouldn’t apply for, or couldn’t afford to earn, a computer science degree.
“These computer skills are as fundamental to this generation of students as carpentry was to my father. Back then, not everyone built a home, but they all knew how to hang a picture and how to assemble a table,” says Mike Denton, C/I’s executive director. “The knowledge about tech you interact with is invaluable, and it’s necessary as these technologies become ubiquitous in every industry.”
C/I first works with teachers who don’t have a background in computer science or engineering, offering seminars during professional development days. Over the course of anywhere from six days to six weeks throughout the year, educators come together to talk through the coding coursework, asking questions ranging from the simple, like what HTML stands for (that would be HyperText Markup Language), to wondering if there is a way to learn coding without a computer on hand (there is).
They also learn that C/I’s pedagogical method derives from an unexpected source: foreign language classes. After all, says Denton, “Computer science, more than anything else, is a language.” So like in Spanish or German classes, the teachers coach students in “grammar,” showing how individual units must be strung together, line by line. The new coders then, in turn, put those lessons into practice as they work to build a website or design a mobile app. Later on in their instruction, students participate in the equivalent of an all-immersive study-abroad trip, diving in to collaborative projects at weekend hackathons.
As students master the new language, like Bennet has done, C/I organizes office tours to show the multiplicity of careers in tech. In Austin, Texas, for example, students might visit a cloud-storage company’s offices or an architectural firm, all of which can use the language of coding in different ways. In New York, Bennet has dropped in at Google, BuzzFeed, FourSquare and so many small startups that she can’t remember all of the names.
“A lot of times students say they want to be a lawyer or doctor because they know those are professions where you can make money more easily. But they might not be aware of the other positions that are available to them,” says Julia Barraford-Temel, C/I’s program manager for its Texas program, Coding4TX. “We bring them there so they can visualize their future.”
To be sure, C/I is not a workforce-development program. Students aren’t funneled into entry-level software testing jobs as soon as they complete their coursework. (About 70 percent of graduating seniors from C/I do choose computer science as a major or minor in college.) As a student at an arts high school focused on film, Bennet, for example, likes the idea of pursuing animation at a company like Pixar. But whichever career path she chooses, she credits C/I with strengthening her creative approach to problem-solving. “Computer science is not just a bunch of code,” she says. “It’s more about connecting through software and tech, with everyone building and creating and being more innovative.”
Denton echoes her point. To him, the main goal of C/I is for young people to understand the technology that now dictates so much of our lives. “We’re only at the beginning of the tech revolution,” he says. “By 2025, these kids are genuinely going to make a massive difference in the world.”
This article is part of the What’s Possible series produced by NationSwell and Comcast NBCUniversal, which shines a light on changemakers who are creating opportunities to help people and communities thrive in a 21st-century world. These social entrepreneurs and their future-forward ideas represent what’s possible when people come together to create solutions that connect, educate and empower others and move America forward.
Let’s fix this country together.