A lot of ink is spilled in discussions over whether young people—those now entering the workforce and those still in school—need or use different skills, or learn and process information differently, from those of us raised in the pre-Internet Dark Ages. Even more ink and angst are devoted to questions of how to diversify the workforce, particularly in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, which still tend to be overwhelmingly male and white, at least in the United States.
These are big questions that center on engaging young people from diverse backgrounds in technology. Responding to these challenges requires addressing questions of access to and comfort with technology—digital readiness and the digital divide—within the United States and around the world.
Some individuals and corporations are not sitting around debating these issues. They are rolling up their sleeves and taking action to encourage youngsters, particularly girls and people of color, to code, animate, and create technology. This article describes three initiatives that create hope for the future while educating the people who will be innovating, designing, and programming the wonders of tomorrow.
Black Girls Code
Kimberly Bryant is an African-American engineer. She’s also a mom, and when her daughter attended a computer science camp, Bryant was horrified that the classroom looked just like the entrepreneurship meetings she attended—predominantly peopled by white males. Bryant became a 2017 San Francisco Chronicle Visionary of the Year because of what she did next.
Bryant taught her daughter and a small group of other girls to code. That first small group grew into a national movement: Black Girls Code, an organization that encourages and supports African-American girls and young women as they learn to code and study robotics and game development.
On the founder’s page, Bryant shares her motivation, recalling the isolation she felt as a college student learning electrical engineering and programming:
“I remember being excited by the prospects, and looked forward to embarking on a rich and rewarding career after college.
“But I also recall, as I pursued my studies, feeling culturally isolated: Few of my classmates looked like me. While we shared similar aspirations and many good times, there’s much to be said for making any challenging journey with people of the same cultural background.”
Black Girls Code provides girls company on their journey through STEM education and as they launch their careers. The organization empowers girls aged 7 – 17 to become STEM innovators and leaders in their communities by bringing them together in a supportive environment to learn, experiment, and create. The group holds coding events and hackathons, game jams, parent-daughter workshops, robot expos, and more. Participants meet female role models and visit tech companies and startups.
Black Girls Code has already engaged thousands of girls and young women across the United States and in Johannesburg, South Africa. The organization aims to train a million girls by 2040. Future Katherine Johnsons—girls who love math and are inspired by the story of NASA’s Katherine Johnson, documented in Hidden Figures—share their stories and pay tribute on a website they created in her honor.
A daylong coding fair for kids aged 10 – 18, JavaOne4Kids is held annually on the day before the JavaOne convention in San Francisco, California. A collaboration between Devoxx4Kids and Oracle Academy, JavaOne4Kids aims to teach kids coding in a friendly and engaging way. The 2016 JavaOne4Kids workshop drew 450 attendees; registration for the 2017 event will begin in the summer.
At JavaOne4Kids events, the participants attend workshops on programming robots and learn to code games or other simple projects. Hundreds of children have been introduced to simple Java programming using languages like Alice, which is used to create animations; Greenfoot, which can be used to create games and simulations; and BlueJ, which introduces object-oriented programming.
Devoxx4Kids introduces kids around the world, primarily non-English-speaking, to simple Java-based programming and robotics in a fun and supportive way. So far, more than 300 events—workshops where children learn programming or program Nao robots—have occurred in Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Caribbean. Special emphasis is placed on being inclusive—many underserved children participate, as well as children with disabilities. All materials are shared on GitHub, a repository for open-source software projects, and have shareable Creative Commons licenses.
Oracle Academy offers computer science education resources to high schools, vocational schools, and colleges and universities in 110 countries.
Pixar in a Box
Faced with trigonometry, analytic geometry, or physics, many schoolkids ask, “Why do I need to learn this?”
Pixar in a Box provides an innovative response. The eLearning collaboration between Pixar Animation Studios and Khan Academy answers this age-old question by showing students that learning math and physics is not only fun, it also leads to really cool career possibilities.
Animating a bouncing ball or moving character is all about mathematical functions, while effects like flowing water and explosions call in knowledge of physics. Examples are drawn from Pixar movies, showing students of all ages how the math and science can be applied to creative and challenging careers as animators, color scientists, or creators of virtual environments.
Pixar created lessons around what it defines as the “fundamental steps” in creating animated movies: things like storytelling, animation, character modeling, and color science. Each step is taught in a design-focused overview, which does not require any math or physics knowledge. For example, the initial lesson in animation introduces concepts like slope and curves. Learners of any age or background can participate in the initial lessons and activities in each topic.
Part two of each topic area includes advanced videos and activities that dive deeper into the relevant concepts. These are geared toward learners at specific grade levels; prerequisite knowledge is identified. To learn about creating the scales on the skin of an animated dinosaur, for example, students are introduced to geometry concepts like midpoints. These lessons are geared to fifth- and sixth-graders. A lesson on randomness and patterns for seventh- and eighth-grade students introduces the concept of random distribution, while high school students will get lessons that introduce trigonometry or linear equations. Activities are also targeted to learners of different grade levels and offer opportunities for students to creatively apply the concepts they’ve just studied.
The collaboration with Khan Academy offers the Pixar in a Box series of courses for free, exposing students of all ages and backgrounds to math and science in a fun and engaging way—and offering the potential to spark interest in STEM fields among young learners anywhere there’s an Internet connection. Pixar in a Box grew out of a museum exhibit, The Science Behind Pixar, developed by the Museum of Science, Boston, in collaboration with Pixar Animation Studios. Partnering with the Khan Academy moved the exhibit online and made it accessible to millions more people. All videos include closed captions and transcripts.