Highlander Code Camp Builds Tomorrow’s Tech Workforce

May 21, 2019

Teach a kid to code, and they can debug their life.

Studies have shown that programming benefits a child’s cognitive development, especially reflectivity and divergent thinking skills, both crucial to creative problem-solving. Learning how to code also helps children enhance their metacognitive abilities, so that they can think about the way they think. Metacognition training has demonstrated increases in academic performance and happiness. Therefore, teaching a kid to code could improve their chance for future success, even if they decide not to pursue a career in programming.

The community development nonprofit Seventy Five North knows this. That’s why they partner with AIM Institute on Highlander Code Camp, a seven-week-long web development program for students who live in or attend high school in North Omaha and who receive free or reduced lunch.

North Omaha is a culturally rich, historically disadvantaged quadrant of the city that has long faced structural inequalities. Health hazards caused by 130 years of corporate misconduct help perpetuate the cycle of poverty. Neighborhood decline frustrates longtime residents. Simultaneously, North Omaha is an epicenter of arts, music, community revitalization, and innovation in education.

Highlander Code Camp runs June 3 to July 25 at the AIM Institute’s Brain Exchange building. The day begins at 9 am with free breakfast, followed by web development instruction from Kent Smotherman, an experienced AIM Interface Web School teacher, for three hours. Students receive a free lunch before embarking on an afternoon of enrichment activities, like field trips and additional instruction. They also receive their own laptop to keep.

The camp helps students realize what career possibilities exist in technology. Every Thursday, students visit a local company to see how what they’re learning now can transfer to their future. Sometimes, these visits result in valuable long-term connections.

“We had one student last year who visited the back-end security department at First National Bank,” said Alexis Bromley, director of strategic partnerships for Seventy Five North. “The First National people said, ‘When you graduate, give us a call because we want to hire you.’”

Students have the freedom to choose what kind of website they want to make. Smotherman will tailor his instruction to the needs of the class, teaching students how to build each of the various components they will use to design and create their own beautiful, functional websites.

Bromley said: “We’ve had students make websites for their favorite Dungeons & Dragons character. We had someone create a website for a health fitness plan, so if you want to get a workout or a healthy diet, you can log onto this website and interface with it. They even learned how to make it mobile-responsive.”

At the end of the camp, the students go through a graduation ceremony attended by family, friends, teachers, mentors, and advisors. Each student will give a ten-minute presentation on how and why they built their websites, discussing what they have learned, what challenges they faced, and what they want to do with technology and web development in the future.

“All of the students who have participated in the program have had an incredible time and rave about it,” Bromley said.

Highlander Code Camp serves a unique need in our community: helping students of color develop programming skills. Students of color are underrepresented in tech. Many factors contribute to the problem, including racism in tech classrooms and racism in the workplace, two issues SPN has reported on in the past. A lack of targeted tech-ed outreach to students of color does not help the situation.

Highlander’s aspirational goals are to secure enough funding to increase class size, and to eventually offer the program year-round.

“A lot of students think, ‘This is an incredible program, how do I keep going,’ and we don’t always have the outlet for them,” Bromley said. “So we would love to figure out how to do a Code Camp 2.0 where, throughout the school year, students who have participated in the program are coming once a week and learning the next phase of web development.”

Beyond teaching participants practical coding skills, Highlander empowers youth to believe in themselves.

In an interview with the AIM Institute, Flywheel Happiness Engineer and former Highlander instructor Eric Swanson said that the young women in his class especially benefited from their time in the camp.

“For a lot of these girls, they had just never been exposed to the idea that they could do tech,” Swanson said. “So when they found out that they were good at it, they were just floored. Everything they had been told up to that point was a lie to them. They were all, ‘Wait a minute. I can do this.’ Just the level of talent, it was always there. Nobody told them that they had it…But it was there, man. It was there.”

Omaha Gives

Please help sustain the vital tech education that AIM provides for our community’s youth. AIM is not only building the tech talent ecosystem to help fill the economy’s need for IT professionals, but improving lives in the process. The more lives we can improve, the better our entire community will be. Donate to our Omaha Gives campaign today to support our youth-in-tech programs—and a stronger, healthier city overall.