It’s often said that the road to success starts in the classroom, but depending on what classroom you’re in, those roads aren’t often paved equally. This is certainly true for STEM/STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) curricula, which has become a priority in education as students prepare for college and careers in the rapidly growing and increasingly competitive field of technology. But while some school programs flourish, others lack the funding and resources to keep up, passing a disparity of training and opportunities on to their students.
Not surprisingly, it’s students of color who suffer most — a scenario that mirrors the same lack of diversity that plagues Silicon Valley: While African Americans and Latinos account for only 9% of tech industry employees, only 3.7% of African American and 8.1% of Latino students sat for the 2013 Advanced Placement Computer Science exam.
To tackle that gap, a Pasadena-based nonprofit is working to provide access and opportunities in STEAM education to all students, regardless of socioeconomic obstacles. Launched in 2014, STEAM:Coders is dedicated to teaching under-served youth the fundamentals of science, technology, engineering, art and math through computer science and coding classes, creating a stepping stone for academic and professional success.
“We want everybody in town to see the same opportunities,” said Raymond Ealy, founder and executive director of STEAM:Coders. “We can’t guarantee success, but we can guarantee opportunities.”
After starting as a series of one-day intensive coding workshops, STEAM:Coders quickly expanded to meet rising demand, hosting eight-week classes on Saturdays and in after-school programs at elementary and middle school campuses across greater Los Angeles. Since its inception, the organization has already served more than 550 students in Pasadena, Altadena, Inglewood and Pomona. By the end of 2016, Ealy hopes to double that number. A partnership with the Pasadena Unified School District will boost that effort locally, with nine-week courses launching at several schools this month as part of the district’s Pasadena LEARNS afterschool program.
“We go to primarily Title 1 schools, because many of those schools don’t have a computer science program, a computer science instructor and, more often than not, do not have a computer lab,” said Ealy. “If they do have equipment, unfortunately it’s not always equipped to handle the speed of the technology. We find that a lot of places want to provide these services to their students but they don’t have the resources.”
Surprisingly, even many schools equipped with computer labs fall short in their computer science curriculum. As a result, STEAM:Coders’ Saturday sessions are filled with a diverse mix of children from public school, private school and even home-school environments — indicating the scope of demand for additional STEAM-based support across a wide swath of Pasadena students.
“You’d think that those kids [in schools with enough resources] would be far ahead of the curve, but the fact that they’re here tells us they’re not,” said Ealy.
Tamera Street, whose son Tyler is an 8th-grader at Pasadena Christian School, enrolled him in a STEAM:Coders course after hearing about the program from another mother. For her, the decision was a matter of providing as much extra support and learning opportunities to her child as possible — even if that meant hauling him to class every Saturday morning.
“Computer science and STEM/STEAM programs aren’t available to students until high school, but they need to be exposed to it very early in life,” said Street, who hopes Tyler’s new skill set will give him an edge in college and career. “It’s so competitive, and that’s why you need to be able to expose your children to opportunities like this, because you want them to be able to compete in that world.”
For his part, Tyler doesn’t seem to mind too much. Now starting his third course in the program, he’s already learned how to build his own mobile app and looks forward to using his new coding skills to design his own video game in the future.
“I like to play different games, and I wanted to not just be the consumer, but also be the creator,” Tyler explained. “What I like about this class are the teachers. They make it fun for you, and it gives me motivation to answer more questions. It makes you want to raise your hand and it makes you want to go further in the process of coding.”
Making coding fun is a key element to STEAM:Coders’ success. While many kids might head for the hills at the suggestion of a science, math or engineering course on its own, it’s hard to resist the opportunity to create your own game or build and program your own robot. In addition to pairing course material to students’ creative interests, lessons are peppered with positive incentives for participation, including a prize raffle for students who raise their hands during class. Being in an environment and collaborating with other like-minded kids also brings an important social component to coding, which tends to be falsely associated with introversion and isolation.
“We try to teach in a way that doesn’t have all the fear and anxiety and obstacles, so they’re having fun, they’re learning a skill, but they don’t really know they’ve learned a skill until later on,” said Ealy. “Suddenly, it opens a whole world of opportunity.”
Through partnerships with Pasadena City College, Art Center, Caltech, Harvey Mudd College, Innovate Pasadena and USC Dossier School of Education, among others, STEAM:Coders provides students access to the world-class resources of Pasadena and its surrounding area’s institutions. Field trips to Google and JPL and guest speakers who work in technology and related fields open students’ eyes to the possibility of careers they may never have contemplated.
“We think it’s a good field to have students become interested in and aspire to because there’s a way for them to apply their creativity and, at the end of the day, there’s actually a marketplace that will reward such skills,” said John Malonson, STEAM:Coders’ lead instructor and director of curriculum. Beyond even seeking employment at tech companies, he said, students armed with the skills and confidence to be innovators can create their own opportunities in the start-up economy.
“We’ve seen how new technologies can disrupt entire industries and level the playing field,” Malonson said. “Back when this kind of technology didn’t exist, it was a longer road to make stuff happen. Now, you don’t even necessarily need to have a building to run a software corporation.”
Even if students don’t end up in a tech career, however, the central skill set of coding is transferable to any number of professions. Developing confidence, logic, critical thinking and problem-solving skills is the true objective of the program, Ealy said — coding is simply the vehicle for doing so.
“When kids have that sense of pride that they made something from their imagination, they start to believe that they can do more, and better and bigger. Now they have a goal,” Ealy said. “We’re never going to bridge that divide between a private school education and a public school education. We’re never going to have a level playing field. However, we can put things in place so that kids who don’t have the financial resources can still see that there are opportunities — they just have to go about it a different way.”
STEAM:Coders is a project of Community Partners. For more information, visit steamcoders.org.