by Jon W. Sparks
innovation: Coding training directly to teenagers using three models: summer coding camps, after-school programs, and in-school training. Draws in new students and sends them into the marketplace with the realization that mentoring, networking, and partnerships are all part of building a community that goes beyond being a savvy coder.
Meka Egwuekwe was well aware of the problem.
As a software engineer, he knew that Memphis and the Mid-South were on the wrong side of the digital skills gap. The call for relevant and effective computer programmers was out there but wasn’t being met as vigorously as was needed.
So he took action.
In 2012, he founded the Memphis Chapter of Black Girls Code, which would become one of the country’s most active efforts to teach girls how to build mobile apps, web pages, video games, and robots.
That would lead him to develop Code Crew in 2015, a program that goes directly to teenagers in schools and community centers, teaching them the nuts and bolts of the jobs of the future.
It’s more than showing youngsters how to write a cool line of code, though. Egwuekwe wants this effort to continue with existing students, to draw in new ones, and to send them into the marketplace with the realization that mentoring, networking, and partnerships are all part of building a community that goes beyond being a savvy coder.
“Code Crew is a nonprofit focused on youth coding,” he says, “and we do that by building healthy relationships with adults in the industry and by convincing kids that they’re capable of being technology producers.”
The program offers coding using three models, Egwuekwe says. It started with summer coding camps and that grew to after-school programs. Now it’s being offered in-school at the Memphis Grizzlies Preparatory Charter School and the Martin Luther King Jr. College Preparatory High School where the students get homework, tests, and grades like any other elective class. “We’re different from many other coding organizations in the city and even the country,” he says, “because we bring it directly to the school.”
What the youngsters learn are practical things that interest them. “Kids want to see the fruits of their labor more than a patient adult would,” Egwuekwe says. “Our summer camps were about mobile development and the students could do them and run them. We taught web development so they could build a website and there’s video game development. It’s what the kids ask for and this allows us to fill a need while hooking them into the reality that coding is not rocket science.”
Being on the board of the National Civil Rights Museum, Egwuekwe met fellow board member Elliot Perry, who was interested in the Black Girls Code program. They discussed setting up a locally based operation open to boys and girls and, with Perry being on the board of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, Egwuekwe was able to use support from the Foundation to establish a digital lab at the Lester Community Center last year.
“That’s how we got started,” he says. “We did a six-week summer camp last year and a two-day hackathon to showcase the skills of the kids, which became an after-school program at Lester last year. And this summer, we had three camps at Lester. Now we’re operating two after-school programs at Lester and the in-school electives as well.”
Code Crew got to where it is today thanks to Egwuekwe and his co-founders Audrey Jones, who works at AutoZone, and Petya Grady, who works with Lokion Interactive. The nonprofit was launched through Start Co.’s Sky High accelerator that specializes in social impact tech startups.
The program is very much about connections. Code Crew relies on the staffs at schools and community centers to find youngsters who might be interested in taking the classes. It also goes through nonprofits that focus on youth, such as Knowledge Quest, and of course it makes use of social media, including Snapchat, Facebook, and Twitter.
The payoff, Egwuekwe says, is that, “In the past 18 months, we’ve had more than 500 kids be a part of Code Crew in some way.” While its oldest regular kids are around 16 now, the organization is mindful of the future. “We have an eye to college and career and entrepreneurship,” he says. “That’s part of our motivation at MLK Prep: We have high school seniors and it’s structured to prepare them to pursue computer science in college. Not every kid goes to college, but they’ll have skills sufficient for them to pursue career opportunities and we can refer them to additional training.”
Even if a student chooses not to pursue a career involving coding, there remain benefits. “It helps in other subjects and provides a healthy relationship in mentoring with industry professionals and college student teaching assistants,” Egwuekwe says.
Egwuekwe — who studied coding when he attended East High School — hopes to eventually teach a significant number of youngsters to code with a well-established teaching network. “We also want to have an effective instructing program so we can train teachers to teach their own students and allow us to reach tens of thousands of kids across Memphis,” he says.
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