SCHENECTADY — A computer coding camp this summer will give middle-schoolers a glimpse of scientific career opportunities and a lesson in problem-solving they can carry on to non-technical career fields, as well.
Schenectady-based nonprofit Rise High, which works to introduce students to the concepts of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), has received grant support from AT&T to offer the program to students who have completed eighth and ninth grades.
Two free sessions will be held in August.
Rise High Executive Director Omayra Padilla DeJesus said the organization’s vision ultimately is to work with grades seven through 12. It began with the middle grades because that’s where children interested in science often drift away from it.
“Middle school is the place where a lot of bad things happen,” she said.
Rise High has been offering Saturday-morning hands-on learning sessions with help from its academic partners, Clarkson University, SUNY Schenectady Community College and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
“The summer program is new for us,” Padilla DeJesus said.
The two, five-day sessions will run from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. at Clarkson’s Capital Region campus on Nott Terrace. The focus will be on coding and digital storytelling Aug. 12-16 and on coding languages and video game development Aug. 19-23. Transportation and lunch will be provided for both sessions.
Each session has room for 20 students. Experience with coding is not required, nor even ownership of a computer, and there are no family income restrictions. However, applicants are asked to explain why they are interested in the program; this will help Rise High choose those best-suited to participate, Padilla DeJesus said.
“We want to make sure that the kids who are taking advantage of these opportunities are the kids that really want this and can benefit the most,” she said.
The application form for the Rise High & AT&T Coding Camp @ Clarkson is online at http://bit.ly/CodeRHandATTatC. The deadline to apply is June 28.
Rise High traces its roots back to the General Electric Global Research Center in Niskayuna, where Padilla DeJesus was a senior scientist.
Padilla DeJesus came from modest beginnings in Puerto Rico, with parents who left school after eighth grade but encouraged her to go further. She was the first in her family to attend college, and from kindergarten to her doctorate, she was the product of public schools.
Working as a chemist in Niskayuna, she recalls seeing public school students nearby facing the gender, cultural and economic barriers she overcame.
“To me it was mind-boggling to see that just a few blocks away — meaning Schenectady city and Schenectady High School — there was a graduation rate of under 60 percent,” Padilla DeJesus said. “Seeing that disparity to me was troublesome. I know what it is to come from a humble background.”
She founded and was a program leader of Inspire, a GRC science and technology program serving at-risk inner-city students.
Mark Little was GE’s chief technology officer at the time, and director of the GRC. When he retired from GE in 2015, he focused more of his attention on the Little Family Foundation, the Schenectady-area charitable organization he and his wife, Terri, founded. One of its initiatives was an effort to improve STEM education opportunities for children and teens in the area.
That eventually was spun off from the foundation and became Rise High. Little says it is his favorite of the many organizations and initiatives he’s involved with.
Padilla DeJesus went back to school and earned an MBA to take the lead on Rise High.
“I would not have left a career that I actually loved, and that I worked so hard for, to do something like this if I didn’t feel so strongly about it,” she said. “We provide a level of support I haven’t seen elsewhere.”
She likes being able to help expand the students’ horizons.
“You do not know what you don’t know,” she said. “So what we want to make sure is that the kids see and become aware of the world out there, that there’s a lot more things than what they’re seeing around their block.”
Code-writing is an essential job skill in many careers, she said, including some that don’t require a four-year degree.
Learning how coding works and how to do it is also a form of personal growth, Little added.
“Coding teaches anybody a way of being very logical and very systematic about doing anything,” he said. “It teaches you how to take on a challenge, struggle with it, make mistakes, correct your mistakes and then move on.
“That kind of mental process and mental toughness serves people well in whatever way they choose to go in their life.”
Padilla DeJesus said: “This concept of problem-solving really builds confidence. And building confidence is the key component of everything that we do. Many of these kids, they don’t feel like they can do certain things.”
AT&T is involved because it wants a diverse workforce that is competent in the STEM fields, said Amy Kramer, its New York president, and because such workers are in increasingly tight supply.
“It’s in our best interest to make sure that we’ve got youth interested and they’ve got the tools and the skills necessary to take on that challenge and take on those careers. But we also want to make sure that we are extending those opportunities for STEM learning to communities and to young people that might not normally have that opportunity or might face some barriers.”
Along with future career development and personal growth, there are also fundamental lessons to be learned at the camp on topics such as cyberbullying, online safety and good digital citizenship, Kramer said.
To some extent, she said, “All jobs are tech jobs. Having an understanding of how computers work is a skill I think all young people should have.”