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Saturday, April 6, 2024

These Services Help Kids Shape the Future Through Code

Whether you call it the metaverse, megaverse, or multiverse, our future selves will undoubtedly live in a world mixed with real and virtual experiences that is unlike anything we know today. And that future will be built on the backbone of unfathomable amounts of code.

As much as I’d like to believe that code is infallible and unbiased, it’s not. Coders are human, and for the last 40 years those humans have been primarily white men. Even today, 65 percent of computer programmers are white (non-Hispanic), and the nonprofit group Girls Who Code reports only 22 percent of computer programmers identify as female.

The idea that a small slice of humanity has and will create social and working platforms for the rest of humankind unless more diverse people take part is alarming. If you think it’s not your problem, think again. “Biases in artificial intelligence algorithms affect everyone from creators to citizens, so the need for diversity is imperative,” explains Pat Yongpradit, chief academic officer at Code.org.

Plus, do we want more of what we have now, with the big social media companies’ issues surrounding privacy, misinformation, and manipulation? “Future generations are going to do things with technology that we can only imagine. The more folks we have at the table as it’s being built, the better chance we have at building something that’s different from what we had before,” says Kimberly Bryant, founder of Black Girls Code.

The good news is that many apps and services, both nonprofit and for-profit, are working hard to inspire all children to love computer science and build diversity into the landscape of what’s to come.

Nonprofit Organizations

Code.org

Increasing computer science participation among students from underrepresented groups is written into Code.org’s mission statement. The nonprofit is the largest provider of free curricula, lesson plans, teacher training, and programming environments within schools.

Code.org is unique because it focuses on systematic change from the federal government to state and local levels. Its yearly state of computer science education report provides updates on computer science education policy, including policy trends, maps, state summaries, and implementation data.

In 2013, the group launched its highly successful Hour of Code, a worldwide effort to celebrate computer science, starting with hour-long coding activities. Today, Hour of Code has reached tens of millions of students in more than 180 countries.

Kids can try free coding projects through the Code.org website. If your school doesn’t offer computer science education, you can help through donations, volunteering, reaching out to your school, and promoting computer science in your area.

Black Girls Code

Kimberly Bryant, an electrical engineer by trade, founded Black Girls Code (BGC) in 2010 after noticing few students of color in the coding and robotics workshops her middle-school-age daughter loved. “I wanted to create an opportunity for my daughter to learn these tangible skills, but also to build her self-confidence and leadership abilities in a space where it was safe for her to be herself,” says Bryant.

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BGC now has 14 chapters in the US and one in South Africa. The group provides workshops and classes where students ages 7 to 18 can learn skills in areas like robotics, virtual reality, artificial intelligence, web design, game design, and more. She says the group also teaches about cutting-edge technology like crypto and the blockchain.

BGC relies heavily on donations from sponsors and does its best to keep costs to a minimum. Virtual programs are often free, and workshops are offered at a minimal cost. Bryant says the group also subsidizes the cost of courses with scholarships based on the needs of the families involved. You can volunteer at a local chapter or donate through the website.

TECHNOLOchicas

TECHNOLOchicas began as an initiative of the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT) and Televisa Foundation. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, Latinas occupied only 2 percent of jobs in the computing workforce in 2016.

The organization focuses on sharing the stories of Latinas who are in the tech field to encourage the younger generation to pursue similar careers. In her role as ambassador, Patricia Garcia, a product development master’s student at the University of Southern California, speaks at events and volunteers at community workshops.

Garcia says it’s important for Latinas to see individuals who look like them succeeding in these roles. She loves watching young faces light up when she speaks about her product development studies. “These are going to be the people inventing the technology that will revolutionize our time,” she says. “I’m happy to play a role, even if it’s as small as teaching one line of code.”

Girls Who Code

If it seems like many nonprofits are dedicated to inspiring young girls, you’re not wrong. The gender gap in computer programming continues to widen at a time when job growth in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields is exploding. According to the Pew Research Center, the growth in STEM jobs is expected to outpace non-STEM jobs in the coming years, and STEM roles continue to pay more than other occupations.

Girls Who Code is on a mission to end the gender gap by 2030 through online resources, campaigns, books, summer camps, clubs, and college and career programs.

Anyone who identifies as female, regardless of gender assignment at birth, is welcome, as well as people who identify as nonbinary or gender-nonconforming and want to be in a female-identified environment. You can get involved by giving your time or a donation.

Others

The Computer Science After School Alliance (CSforALL) connects students, teachers, researchers, sponsors, and after-school organizations, with the goal of bringing computer science education to every child in the US. You can search the Member Directory for a complete list of organizations working with CSforALL.

For-Profit Services and Apps

Countless for-profit coding services exist, offering everything from home learning programs to nightly classes and summer camps. The following are examples (though not an exhaustive list) of lower-cost apps and services that target a diversified audience.

BitsBox/Bluprint

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When former Google employees Aidan Chopra and Scott Lininger got together to build a product to teach kids to code, they knew they needed to develop a concept no one else was working on, and they wanted to reach as many kids as possible.

This desire led to BitsBox, a subscription box that teaches a new computer science concept each month through app projects kids enjoy. The service starts at $17 per month, and Chopra says the boxes have reached more than a million kids worldwide.

Now the team is working on a coding application called Bluprint. It’s entirely web-based and is expected to be functional by June. The app replicates gaming environments kids already know, like Minecraft and Roblox, with their 3D and social natures. “We’ve tacked on everything we’ve learned about teaching kids to code with BitsBox over the last few years and made it easy to flip back and forth between modeling and coding,” says Chopra.

Safety is a priority, with nothing to download, and kids can only invite friends they know by sending them a block of code. Chopra explains that the basic application is free, but users can earn blueprint currency to spend in the store by creating items within the game, or they can buy currency to purchase objects they don’t want to make themselves.

codeSpark Academy

The codeSpark Academy targets children 5 to 9 years old and aims to teach kids the fundamentals of coding through games, puzzles, problem-solving, and reasoning. There’s no reading required, and the program is entirely self-directed.

The company reports that 53 percent of its users are girls, and it partners with the Girls Scouts of America to offer discounts for home and troop use and to host one-day coding events. The team at codeSpark is also devoted to diversity within the organization, stating that 50 percent of their team is made up of women and 50 percent are people of color.

If you're interested, codeSpark offers a free seven-day trial and then costs $10/month or $80/year.

Sphero Edu

Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that is dedicated to digital well-being for kids and deeply committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion, recommends Sphero Edu for kids interested in robotics and programming. Users download an app that teaches block-based programming and lets them direct and control their Sphero robots from a tablet or phone.

Sphero offers a wide variety of kits and robots, starting at $15.

The company also provides teachers with curricula, education guides, and professional development.

Others

Common Sense Media offers a full list of apps and websites that the organization recommends, along with reviews and tips for getting the most out of each program.


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