Coding Camp to Baltimore Schools: Bring Us Your Bored!

Aug 1, 2015
Originally published on October 2, 2015 7:28 pm

On the second floor of Morgan State University's engineering building, Jacob Walker, 12, is putting the finishing touches on a ruler he's just created.

Not yet an actual ruler. One he's designing on the computer. He just needs to add his initials — then it's time to produce it on a 3-D printer.

Jacob starts seventh grade in the fall and has big dreams. Building this ruler is all part of the plan.

"When I was a child," he says, "I loved to play with Legos, and it inspired me to be an engineer when I get older."

Jacob is one of some 50 boys in this free, four-week camp at Morgan State. It's called the Minority Male Makers Program — paid for by Verizon.

Students learn to code, design apps, create products — even build a business plan. After they design their rulers, they start pitching ideas: a candy-selling business, a website for kids having trouble studying, an app to find your lost keys.

"We knew that they had these types of capabilities," says LaDawn Partlow, a lecturer at Morgan State, who oversees the program. "It just was about providing them the opportunities and the resources and the outlets to bring it out of them."

To find students, Partlow and her team reached out to local middle-school principals and counselors with this simple request:

"We want students who seem like they may need more of a challenge, who on a daily basis may seem a little removed from class," she says. "They may be bored."

They aren't now. Partlow says some of these kids know the material better than she does, but they're still young and impressionable. And that matters.

"Why not start with the middle schools," she says. "That's where you want to grab the attention of the students. After that they've pretty much formed their own path."

Another benefit of the program: Current Morgan State students work as teaching aides and mentors. They're not just there to help students with the work. They're role models, showing these kids what's possible: college and a career in engineering, math, or tech.

"I relate a lot to these kids," says mentor Chris Gaines, 26. "There's no limits for them, and that's what I want to share with them."

Gaines is back at Morgan State earning a math degree — after working for several years as an electrical engineer.

"From my experience in the industry, there's not many young men of color," Gaines says. At work, it sometimes got uncomfortable when talk turned to stories of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown.

"I was the only young black man in my previous job," Gaines says. "I just had to speak up for these young fellows. So they could understand my perspective. Instead of arguing, I said, 'How about I just contribute and do my part?' And that's why I'm here."

Though summer classes wrapped up this week, the program runs for two years.

Jacob Walker and his classmates will come back to campus for several Saturdays throughout the school year. Mentor Chris Gaines says he'll be there to answer questions about engineering, college — and life.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, HOST:

Now the story of an unusual summer camp in Baltimore. It's a month-long program for middle school boys meant to give them a crash course in coding and design. The camp's founders are hoping to cultivate the next generation of talented black engineers. Elissa Nadworny of the NPR Ed team reports.

ELISSA NADWORNY, BYLINE: Meet 12-year-old Jacob Walker.

JACOB WALKER: This is my ruler are that I've created.

NADWORNY: He isn't holding an actual ruler. He's designing one on a computer, and once he's finished adding his initials, he'll produce it on a 3-D printer. Jacob's just about to start seventh grade and has big dreams. Building this ruler - it's all part of the plan.

JACOB: Well, when I was a child, I loved to play with the Legos, and it inspired me to be an engineer when I get older.

NADWORNY: Jacob is one of the 50 or so boys in this free four-week camp at Morgan State University. It's called the Minority Male Makers Program, and it's paid for by Verizon.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #1: I've already gotten started.

NADWORNY: Students are learning to code, to design apps, create products and make business plans. They're not just excited about what they're doing. They're good at it. After they design their rulers, they start pitching ideas for apps.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #2: I'm doing a business - a candy-selling business.

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #3: It's a website - if a kid's having trouble to study, they can go on our app and...

UNIDENTIFIED BOY #4: You can tap the button, and you can find your keychain 'cause the keychain has a chip in. And you'll be able to find it when you go on to the app.

LADAWN PARTLOW: We knew that they had these types of capabilities. It just was about providing them the opportunities and the resources and the outlets to bring it out of them.

NADWORNY: LaDawn Partlow is a lecturer at Morgan State and oversees the program. To find students, university reached out to local middle school principals with this simple request.

PARTLOW: We want students who seem like they may need more of a challenge, who on a daily basis may seem a little removed from class. They may be bored.

NADWORNY: Bored, though not anymore. Partlow says some of these kids know the material better than she does, but they're still young and impressionable.

PARTLOW: Why not start with, you know, the middle schools because that's where you really want to grab the attention of the students because, after that, you know, they've pretty much forged their own path.

NADWORNY: Another benefit of the program - current Morgan State students work as TAs and mentors.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Alright, so pay close attention to what I'm doing here.

NADWORNY: These mentors not only help students through the work, they're also role models, showing these kids they can go to college. They can have a career in engineering, in math, in tech.

CHRIS GAINES: I relate to a lot of these kids, you know? There's no limit for them. That's what I wanted to share with them.

NADWORNY: That's 26-year-old mentor Chris Gaines. He's back at Morgan State after working as an electrical engineer.

GAINES: From my experience in the industry, it's not many young men of color.

NADWORNY: He says it would get uncomfortable in the office when the stories of Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown came up.

GAINES: And I was the only young, black male at my previous job. And I just had to, you know, speak up for, you know, these young fellows. You know, they'd understand my perspective. And instead of arguing, I said, how about I just contribute and do my part? And that's why I'm here.

NADWORNY: Those summer classes recently wrapped up. The program runs for two years, so the kids will come back to campus for several Saturdays throughout the school year. Mentor Chris Gaines says he'll be there to answer questions about engineering, college and life. Elissa Nadworny, NPR News, Baltimore. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.