On a warm, sunny day at Northern New Mexico University, a handful of high school students are enjoying their summer at camp. But this isn't your average day camp. Instead of playing dodgeball and romping about the pool, these students are building websites, learning multiple new languages and other technical skills. Welcome to Cultivating Coders.
The students, about 15 to 20 high-schoolers, are joking and talking loudly with one another while they work on their laptops. A few lines of code are projected on the board at the front of the room while instructor Kyle Hagler is working with students to troubleshoot the program that had crashed for a few of the kids. Hagler explains that today the task is programming a digital clock, but they were having some software issues that they were working out.
While Kyle works with the affected students, others work quietly on projects as they enter the third week of the eight-week camp.
"So far we've learned how to make websites and build stuff, like right now we're making a clock. But some of the kids' computers have crashed so we're kind of stopped, but on Friday we made a drum kit. It's pretty cool," says Rique Fernandez, who starts her senior year in the fall. She pulls up the drum kit she programmed and begins tapping keys, which play corresponding musical notes. She says it's her favorite thing she's made so far.
"I've never done anything like this and I think it would be good to get computer experience because I don't know too, too much." Fernandez explains.
This quickly developing passion for coding seems to be widespread in the class based on other students' comments and from Hagler's own observations. At the same time as the Española camp, students are also at work in Albuquerque and Shiprock.
Students who are selected to attend the camp at no cost not only get to use a new laptop and complimentary software during the program, but also get to keep it when they graduate thanks to sponsors including Microsoft and the Los Alamos National Laboratory Foundation.
While it's important that the students are engaged with fun, educational summer programming, Cultivating Coders serves an even larger purpose: to diversify and expand the community of coders on a local and national scale.
"Cultivating Coders was started in late 2015 with the intention of bringing training to smaller areas that are typically isolated from the tech industry. We call these places 'overlooked' areas where tech isn't even in the conversation most of time," says Charles Ashley, the organization founder and president.
He adds that many people do not pursue careers or education in the tech industry simply because they are not exposed to the technology or resources. The program has 58 students in this summer and hopes to increase that number to 70 or 80 by next summer.
Impressively progressive, Cultivating Coders selects students primarily based on personality. Ashley says that in order to be considered for the program, students must be enrolled at the high school within the community it's based—in this case, Española Valley High School. Cultivating Coders' staff spends time getting to know the students and the community through workshops and orientation events, inviting interested students to apply for the program. The application asks students about their experience with coding and their demographic background, but it's the student's interview that's most important, Ashley explains. "We want to know, what is your commitment? Will you stick with this?"
Soon, he's adding more after-school programs in the three regions so that students can receive training and mentoring over the course of several years. "Our hope is that after one, two, three years with us, these kids will go on and get into colleges and universities with competitive computer science programs," Ashley says. He then adds that while not every student will pursue a college education, this program will give them a universal skill set so they can go out and work or even start their own business.
Already, the entrepreneurial spirit is alive and well in current Española students. Hagler shares that his Española students plan to start their own after-school programming club once school starts up again in the fall.
In an ever-expanding tech industry, Ashley hopes to close the gap between students and technology. "This is a fully dynamic program. These are real-world applications we are giving to these kids and they're working on real projects. We want them to be able to go out ready into the world."