On a patch of palm-tree-abundant land by the Bay, the small city of East Palo Alto is an often forgotten corner of the Silicon Valley landscape.
Situated between the Google and Facebook campuses, the racially mixed city has seen rapid gentrification since the technology industry boom of the last decade. Tech workers in search of affordable housing have moved in, driving up rent and house prices and helping to level off an unemployment rate that is nearly triple that of the county.
Still, East Palo Alto can’t manage to shed its reputation for once having the country’s highest murder rate. Gang activity persists in the form of turf feuds and drug-vendetta-inspired violence, despite an overall drop in crime.
One issue deepening the divide between the tech industry and the city’s locals is the lack of opportunities for East Palo Alto residents to get in on the success. There are very few places to learn computer science in the area.
Two students at Stanford University set out to change that.
Earlier this month, we featured Shadi Barhoumi and Rafael Cosman on our list of the 15 Incredibly Impressive Students At Stanford. The duo, who met and became friends as computer science majors, launched a learn-to-code program this summer called CodeCamp. More than 50 students, ages 14 to 23, who live in East Palo Alto learned to write and design software with the help of over 40 mentors from nearby high schools, universities, and tech companies.
At CodeCamp, students gather in the glow of a computer monitor, rather than around a campfire. Arts and crafts are replaced with coding sprints, and campers explore major tech company campuses instead of the woods.
Far from being your typical camp, CodeCamp gives these kids an outlet into the vibrant world of technology, which suddenly doesn’t seem so off-limits.
When you think of a traditional camp, you might picture log cabins, a picturesque lake, and hoards of middle schoolers braiding macramé bracelets and competing in Colour Wars. But CodeCamp is no ordinary camp.
In its inaugural summer, more than 50 middle school, high school, and college-aged students from East Palo Alto -- all with little to no programming experience -- learned to write and design software for free.
Its founders, Shadi Barhoumi and Rafael Cosman, became friends as computer science majors at Stanford University. The rising sophomore and senior spent last summer teaching programming at an after-school program at a local charter school, where they got the idea for CodeCamp.
They chaperoned their students at a hackathon, or a programming marathon. When it was time to return to the classroom, the students were transformed, itching to learn more. 'That was the moment we said, we have to make a summer camp,' Cosman says, 'where you hack like crazy all day and go home exhausted.'
It was important to them that the camp was free, but the pair would need to raise money, and quickly, for instructors' summer housing, laptops for every student, and catered lunches. In a matter of eight weeks, Barhoumi and Cosman raised $US75,000, thanks to generous donations from their advisors and wealthy entrepreneurs.
With sufficient funds under their belt, the duo got permission to hold camp at an abandoned remedial school in nearby Redwood City. They cleared out the cobwebs and hung posters and banners to brighten up the space.
Less than five months after the idea was conceived, camp was in session. They modelled CodeCamp after a hackathon, with the first two weeks dedicated to learning and practicing the skills necessary to build robust and compelling websites.
Coding lessons were chiefly made up of short, interactive coding demonstrations and conceptual explanations. Each time a new coding technique was introduced, students were given a quick coding challenge to complete to help them absorb and practice the new skill.
Teachers roamed the classroom to give students who needed extra help one-on-one attention, helping them debug code and solidifying their conceptual understanding of the material.
After learning the coding techniques needed to build a website, students put their skills to the test in a two-week sprint towards a working product. Teams of three to four students worked together to come up with an idea for a website, code it, and prepare to present it on Demo Night.
The white board gives a revealing look into what goes down on a typical day at CodeCamp. Of course, students played as hard as they worked.
Barhoumi broke out his ukulele as a bonding instrument. Students and instructors would gather around, sing karaoke, and serenade each other: no campfire required.
And students met real programmers and designers on trips to Google, Facebook, Yahoo, and Meteor, an open-source platform for building web apps more efficiently.
What's most unique about CodeCamp is not its classroom environment or coding-centric activities, but that its value for students pays in dividends. East Palo Alto is a small, racially diverse city wedged between the Facebook and Google campuses. Once boasting the country's highest murder rate, the neighbourhood is often characterised by its gang activity and high unemployment rate.
But the city's desirable location in the heart of Silicon Valley has led to rapid gentrification, with tech workers moving into the area and pricing out longtime East Palo Alto residents. However, there are very few opportunities to actually learn computer science here, deepening the divide between these two communities.
'While learning to program is by no means a panacea for the economic woes of a city, it can be a dedicated young person's admission ticket to an industry bursting with opportunities,' Bahourami says. 'My dream is that young people in East Palo Alto learn to code, start companies, and contribute some of the value they create back to their community.'
One such student is David Chatman, 23. He was forced to drop out of college to help his mother make ends meet, and lost his job at Home Depot shortly before starting CodeCamp. Inspired to show a different side of his hometown, he built Ambition Spotlight, a website that highlights the determination of young go-getters from East Palo Alto.
He's since been accepted into AngelHack HACKcelerator, a 12-week accelerator startup program which helps young coders turn their projects into full-fledged startups. He's now CEO of a blossoming company, SuaveFX, and leads a team of developers and marketers to make Ambition Spotlight a reality.
Ten coders in all were accepted into the accelerator program and the team is working on securing internships at local tech companies, where CodeCampers would test software and develop their coding skills.
CodeCamp is now partnering with local non-profit Live in Peace to expand into StreetCode Academy. The seven-room school will act as a community center, where Stanford students and engineers from tech companies will teach computer science classes for free. 'It will help create this culture of entrepreneurship,' Barhoumi says. 'And make coding cool in East Palo Alto.'
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