The day that the power went out in the building of the Advantage Learning Cooperative & Kids 4 Coding was a rough day for the kiddos.
They'd shown up for summer camp, ready to dive into some MinecraftEdu and other coding games, but their excitement turned into sad faces and hunched shoulders — so much so, that co-founders Denise Detamore and AnnMarie Laramee scheduled a party/make-up day.
The kids just didn't want to miss anything.
Detamore and Laramee started Kids 4 Coding near Atlanta, Georgia, about 2 years ago. Detamore had been a public school teacher for 20 years, and Laramee's background was in business and marketing. Friends for 10 years, they set out to create an academic enrichment center focused on math and technology.
Part of the reason Detamore and Laramee think that centers like theirs need to exist is because tech education, especially in public schools, isn't sufficient.
"No one is really completely tracking exactly how many schools are offering computer science, but NPR reports they believe that only 5-10% of the schools are actually teaching computer science," Detamore said. Yet, that's where the workforce is going, she said. And the US is falling behind.
She cited numbers released by the College Board which showed a few unsettling trends from the past year:
- In Mississippi, Montana, and Wyoming, no girls took a AP computer science exam in 2013.
- In 8 states, no Hispanics took the exam.
- In 17 states, fewer than 100 students took the exam.
They think the wise approach is to start kids young on the path to digital literacy. Most schools have computers, but the computers are used for more passive activities, Detamore said, like practicing for standardized tests, or building PowerPoints (something an elementary student in the 90s would have learned).
Whether or not these kids ever decide to go into technology jobs, they'll have a skill set that will be increasingly in demand, said Detamore and Laramee.
Take 3D animation — "You can apply 3D animation through computers in medicine, whether it's 3D animation of the heart or the brain, there's so many different aspects of technology that jobs and a trained workforce require," Detamore said, and that will be important in the future.
Beyond connecting kids in general with coding, Laramee and Detamore are also concerned with reaching girls specifically.
In almost any given class, Detamore and Laramee see 10% girls and 90% boys.
Once girls get in the class and show their parents how enthusiastic they are about it, their parents tend to champion them, and do what they can to get them to the class, but it takes awareness in the first place to get there.
"I think what it comes down to is just educating people. They just don't know that this would be something that their daughter would be interested in," Laramee said.
In January, they hope to introduce a girls-only Scratch class, and a girls-only programming class.
Of course, the kids who come to class probably aren't thinking about the future economy. They're thinking about Minecraft.
Laramee said that one morning during their summer camp, a car pulled up, the mom opened the back door, and her son went bolting out of the car and up the walkway.
He was five minutes late and wouldn't let his mom hear the end of it.
"We are sitting here thinking gosh, we've been working 12, 15 hours a day, this is crazy. We're so tired, but when you have a response and you know you are making such a difference in someone's life..." Laramee said.
At the moment, they've got roughly 8 to 10 teachers from the industry, many of whom approached them, depending on which classes are offered when. This summer, 370 students came through the summer camp.
Going forward, Detamore and Laramee hope they'll be able to expand their class offerings, and even their facility, down the line. For those outside of Atlanta, the center provides an excellent example of grassroots innovation in prepping kids in general (and girls specifically) in coding and tech.
Erin Carson has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Erin Carson is a Staff Reporter for CNET and a former Multimedia Editor for TechRepublic.