It was a postcard-perfect Sunday afternoon, but the 30 kids at the Patricia and Phillip Frost Museum of Science’s Teen Tech Center were inside, focused on their virtual worlds. This time, though, there were no parent complaints about wasting time on video games — the kids weren’t playing them, they were learning to build them.
The day’s challenge to create a virtual theme park was part of CoderDojo, one of three coding clubs for kids started by Florida International University’s School of Computing and Information Sciences. The groups have been meeting regularly in Miami-Dade and Broward.
Michelle Torres, 11, Cheryl Fiffe, 8, and Chloe Fiffe, 10, of Little Havana’s Coral Way K-8 Center, programmed the ups, downs and arounds of their “Monster Coaster.” At a nearby table, team Salazar — Luis, 10, Maximo, 8, and Lucia, 7, who attend St. Patrick Catholic School in Miami Beach — designed a haunted forest and “the world’s first underwater roller coaster.” Nearby, Aisha Chebbi, 12, of George Washington Carver Middle School in Coral Gables, worked on a Little Mermaid-inspired park.
“There are no quizzes, no tests. They learn at their own pace — and learn with each other,” said Gregory Jean-Baptiste, an FIU computer science doctoral student who mentors at CoderDojo. “So it’s not, ‘Let’s get together and play Minecraft.’ It’s, ‘Let’s figure out how to build Minecraft,’ ” he said, referring to a video game wildly popular with young people.
South Florida’s tech community is counting on an army of coding ninjas to fill their jobs of the future — a national shortfall that’s attracted celebrity attention locally from the Miami Heat’s Chris Bosh. A decade from now, the federal government projects that there will be 1 million more technology jobs than workers to fill them. Yet, of the $4.3 billion spent annually by the federal government on STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, only one-fifth goes to supporting K-12 level training, according to AdvancED, a world’s largest education-focused nonprofit.
The need for coding education is particularly acute among girls. Just 0.3 percent of high school girls express interest in studying computer science in college, and less than 1 percent of all women graduating from college receive computer science degrees, according to research from the Girls Who Code nonprofit.
Nurturing a future tech workforce in South Florida is also key to boosting the region’s burgeoning entrepreneurial ecosystem. Local tech companies say the region has too few workers with well-developed tech expertise, a complaint that has led a number of organizations to focus on developing home-grown talent. Community organizations from the Knight Foundation to the Beacon Council also believe immersing kids in learning opportunities helps nurture passion and create community connections that will encourage young talent to remain in South Florida and help them build careers here.
Increasingly, South Florida students have opportunities to learn software coding and develop entrepreneurial skills. Along with the popular CoderDojo clubs, several organizations offer one-day workshops, such as Code Fever and Black Girls Code. New York-based Girls Who Code is bringing an immersion program to Miami this year. Venture Hive Prep will hold tech-entrepreneurship camps for second- through fifth-graders this summer and roll out an extensive program for high school students in the fall. Stardom Up is introducing tech-entrepreneurship boot camps in middle schools. Feynlabs, a British tech-education startup, chose Miami to test and launch its new learning curriculum ( read related story here).
With the maker movement gaining popularity, MIAMade, the nonprofit group that brought Miami its first Mini-Maker Faire, has teamed up with the Maker Education Initiative and The LAB Miami, a co-working and education campus in Wynwood, to launch the Miami Maker Corps summer program. It will be aimed at high school students wanting to learn "clean maker tech" — such as soldering, 3D printing and robotics. Young makers can get hands-on with coding, animation, green technology and more April 5-6 at a technology and innovation festival at the Frost Museum of Science. Many South Florida students will be participating in contests and maker activities at the STEM Tech Olympiad at the upcoming eMerge Americas Techweek.
Despite the explosion in programs, they fill up fast, and many have waiting lists. The Miami-Dade and Broward school systems also have made great progress getting more computers in the classrooms and more technology classes in the curriculums, and some industrious students are patching together opportunities to learn on their own, in school and through workshops.
About two years ago, Atlas Dostal, then 13, had been playing Minecraft for a few months when he decided he wanted to make a module for it. “I used the Internet to teach myself. Once I had it opened up, I started playing around and seeing what happened.”
He’s in ninth grade now, taking advanced computer science with seniors at Ronald Reagan Senior High, but for him, it’s not challenging enough. So Atlas recently created a program for his math teacher’s geometry class. He also is building a robot with the high school competition team and working on a new video game, as well as continuing to expand his Rival Rebels Minecraft module, which has attracted 1.5 million views. And as a result of discussions initiated by Atlas, Reagan High has started a computer club that Atlas will lead and next year will offer classes in game programming.
Still, not every teen is as self-motivated as Atlas to learn coding. A key to success is providing role models and accessibility, say experts. That’s why the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship, which has been working in low-income schools in South Florida since 2006, is adding tech-focused camps this summer, and Genius Factory, a STEM-focused nonprofit, plans a summer program for about 120 students with Breakthrough Miami. That’s also why the grassroots South Florida organization ITWomen sends successful tech professionals to speak and mentor at low-income schools and awarded $66,000 in 2013 scholarships. ITWomen is also planning robotics summer camps this year at Pace Centers For Girls.
In another effort to introduce technology in under-served low-income communities, Felecia Hatcher, founder of Feverish Ice Cream, and her partners started Code Fever workshops on various Saturdays in Miami-Dade and Broward. She also helped persuade the San Francisco-based nonprofit group Black Girls Code to set up a chapter in Miami. Black Girls Code seeks out and offers scholarships to girls of color, but its workshops are open to anyone age 7-17.
Ronika Lewis — a technology specialist who flew in from Atlanta to help with the group’s first Miami workshop, called “Build a Website in a Day” — said the instructors start by getting to know the girls and asking them what they like. By relaying how tech is used in activities they like, the kids get enthused. “It’s so cool to see the light bulb go on,” said Lewis, who works for the French company Dassault Systemes.
For Imani Spivey, 16, of iPrep Academy, fashion was the hook. “If you need red pumps, where do you find them? You can go here,” she said, showing off her website in progress. “Over here will be beauty tips and a ‘see how it looks section,’ ” she said, clicking through the site. She plans lots of videos.
Younger students often want to build sites about themselves, Lewis said, and that’s fine, too. Kennedy Jennings, 11, who calls herself the “IT chick,” was building a site about her life, which included her favorite hip-hop bands and a section on her family. Kennedy is already an expert with the iPhone5, the Kindle, Instagram and hashtags, said her father, Bernard Jennings.
While the kids built their websites, Jennings and other parents listened to a panel of local tech entrepreneurs and professionals talk about how to prepare for a career in technology and entrepreneurship as a career choice, said Leigh Toney, executive director of the Miami Dade College Carrie P. Meek Entrepreneurial Education Center who also helped bring Black Girls Code to Miami.
A new organization, Stardom Up, has launched three-session workshops at Shenandoah Middle School, where students get a taste of the tech entrepreneurial process. Last semester, the final workshop, held at The LAB Miami in Wynwood, became a competition — each team presented its best case for an app for improved school lunches. This semester, the students will participate in eMerge Americas Techweek.
Next year, Stardom Up hopes to involve more local startups that will "adopt" a classroom and go through the Stardom Up curriculum. “Ultimately, the goal remains to inform, inspire and involve disadvantaged middle school students with tech entrepreneurship and point them toward specific, intensive programs such as Web development, coding, Web design and entrepreneurship being built out throughout Miami-Dade County,” said Luis F. Martinez, who founded the program with Adrienne Celaya, a sociology professor at the University of Miami.
Experts believe tech education should start young — really young. That’s why Venture Hive, an entrepreneurship education program, accelerator and incubator in downtown Miami, will be running two summer camps for kids at the Miami science museum for kids as young as second grade.
“It’s not just about giving some kids some code. It’s about making it applied and real so the kids will come up with ideas and talk to customers and then build based on their customers’ interests,” said Susan Amat, Venture Hive’s founder, who also chairs the Miami-Dade County Public Schools STEM Board. “It will be a really exciting way to open their minds up to not just building something that’s cool, but there has to be a market for it.”
For high school students, Venture Hive Prep plans to open a program in the fall that will offer an entrepreneurship and coding curriculum and let high school students work alongside tech entrepreneurs for experiential learning.
Both Venture Hive Prep and The LAB Miami are prominently featured in the inaugural video of the new national Generation Beta series produced by AdvancED, the Atlanta-based accreditation organization that is also working on standards for STEM. The goal of the video series, said AdvancED CEO Mark A. Elgart: spark conversation and share best practices on STEM education through the videos, discussion forums and webinars throughout AdvanceED’s network of more than 32,000 schools and beyond. A recent session about STEM education on Google hangout hosted 36,000 participants, he said.
“We are spending too much energy talking about how education used to be … instead of the future. We believe for every student to find a pathway to success, we need a system of education that is more focused on the learner, who can customize his or her own learning experience,” said Elgart. “With things like coding, which is a skill for everyone in their future, we’re finding that the mainstream white male is once again finding the most access to current and future elements of education designed for career success. Females and underrepresented groups need just as much, if not more, access to these programs for their success and their future.”
To help in that regard, Girls Who Code, a national nonprofit launched in 2012, is expanding to Miami this year, with support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “Empowering young women with computer-science education changes the trajectory not just of individual girls, but of entire communities,” said Reshma Saujani, founder and CEO of Girls Who Code.
Girls Who Code’s 2014 Summer Immersion Program for high school juniors and seniors kicks off this June and pairs instruction in computing concepts, programming fundamentals, mobile phone development and robotics with visits and mentoring by top female engineers and entrepreneurs.
In just seven weeks, the girls will be able to significantly sharpen their skills. But broader success for this and other programs won’t be seen for several years, as the community stanches brain drain, sparks innovation and develops a talent pipeline for the fast-growing and well-paying tech industry.
Back at the science museum, the CoderDojo kids wrapped up their projects with presentations about their creations. Not all of their animation attempts went off as expected — but the goal was to figure out why. Cheryl and Chloe Fiffe’s Monster Coaster did go for a wild ride, however, and they explained how they used “Brainpop” to make it zoom.
The goal of the coding clubs is to offer free resources to kids who want to program, said Steven Luis, director of IT/business relations at FIU’s School of Computing and Information Sciences who launched the first South Florida CoderDojo in Pembroke Pines last summer. Now three clubs, they each meet twice a month; at every gathering, the kids are given a “challenge” that they work together to solve.
“Everything we do is about encouraging the kids to build together,” said Luis. “You’ve got to make it fun and exciting. You’ve got to let them express themselves.”