Teaching kids to code undoubtedly prepares them for jobs in the future. But what does this mean for the communities that helped them become career ready?
With booming tech sectors, jobs in computer science are concentrated in major cities in the United States, which means smaller municipalities often see local graduates leave for these hubs. The effect of this is an aging population in smaller towns and rural areas, fleeting investment from larger businesses, and growing unemployment or underemployment as more traditional manufacturing and service sector jobs become obsolete.
Introducing the Marquette Tech District
The Marquette Tech District is working to change this in Cape Girardeau, Missouri by linking student learning with community development through coding education. I had the chance to connect with the organization’s head of youth coding initiatives, Stacy Lane.
Stacy explains that the Marquette Tech District is “working to build a strong tech sector in Southeast Missouri” that “involves the physical infrastructure, an ecosystem that is conducive to the success of startups, and both a short- and long-term focus on talent.” Stacy adds that “this was essentially non-existent before we began just a few years ago.”
The Marquette Tech district sees tech as “the new manufacturing” with massive economic opportunity for Cape Girardeau. As she explains, “When we have people and companies in our region creating and selling tech, they are bringing dollars from outside our region to be spent within our communities.”
Affirming that tech investment and local entrepreneurship “are contingent on joint efforts to attract, develop, and retain talent,” the District serves as an incubator for tech talent by offering both adult and youth coding programs.
Seeing the Value in Coding Education
In speaking with Stacy, I was struck by how comprehensive the coding programs are and the value placed on coding as a regional tool. This isn’t just coding for students’ future readiness, it’s coding for communities’ future readiness.
“Our adult coding program is a way to make an immediate impact on our community - both by adding developers to the workforce who make almost double the average median salary for the state of Missouri...and by developing a technical workforce in Southeast Missouri that’s appealing to businesses.
Our work with youth programming is a long-term approach to developing a technical workforce for our area as well as preparing students for the digital workplace of the future. The problem-solving skills and logic they gain, as well as understanding the principles of thinking systematically will help them now and in the future, regardless of the field they go into someday.”
The Tech District’s student programming includes summer camps for elementary and middle-school students as well as an after-school program, called the Youth Coding League, for middle and junior high schoolers. Participants spend eight weeks learning how to program and then create projects as teams and compete to be their school champion. Each school then sends them as a representative to a larger regional competition.
Breaking Down Barriers to Participation
Beyond lowering barriers to coding education and training, the Tech District is also encouraging people to see themselves as coders.
“One common misconception we’ve tried to debunk is that to be a software developer you have to be fluent in high-level math. We’ve found this to be a deterrent for people to even look into computer programming.
There is plenty of opportunity as a programmer where knowing basic math is completely sufficient...We share this in our messaging as well as use elements within our curriculum framework that highlight paths where a deep level of formulas and algorithms aren’t needed.”
Breaking Down Barriers to Inclusion
In a similar way, the youth programs have also managed to break through the gendered imbalance that often dissuades female participation in coding. While only 18 percent of computer science majors are women and 25 percent of IT jobs are held by women, the Youth Coding League has equal parts female and male participation, which is a statistic Stacy notes she is ‘particularly proud of’ and associates with three important factors, “the curriculum, the age, and the messenger.”
Curriculum: For the curriculum, the program pulls in “thematic content that overlaps the liberal arts with computer science.” This past year students worked through curriculum that was themed ‘Storytelling’ and ‘Music & Sound.’ And this year carries an ‘Arts’ theme, making “the content itself very welcoming to both boys and girls.”
Age: The Youth Coding Language also reaches students starting in fifth-grade, which Stacy explains is “just before the Middle School Cliff in which there is a sharp downturn in girls involvement in STEM courses. We get them involved in coding before that big drop off, and I think that’s been a big harbinger of our success in achieving the equity we’re seeing in our female and male participation.”
The Messenger: The last factor are the League’s coaches who are mostly women, which enables female participants to picture themselves as computer scientists and programmers. This “empowers female participants by...welcoming them into what has traditionally been a male space before they start applying labels such as ‘I’m not good at math or computer science.’”
Giving Students a Voice
The program not only changes stereotypes but engages participants in rich learning experiences that are changing how they learn and equipping students with skills and attitudes that extend far beyond knowing how to code.
A teacher who works with the program shared in a video that “coding has given students a voice.” She adds that it has brought students outside of their comfort zone, engaged them in their other schoolwork, and improved attendance.
Adding to the benefits, Stacy shares that a recent student who had “struggled to make Cs and Ds and was behind his peers since kindergarten. He did really well in the Youth Coding League when his school participated in the spring. Having classmates ask him for help – for the first time, ever – was transformative for him. Participating in something at school and receiving positive recognition for that was another first for this student.”
The Coding League is simultaneously “getting a critical skill in the hands of students” and changing the nature of the student experience in school, building confidence, and rallying support and a shared enthusiasm across schools: “Kids who aren’t athletic and might not always be your constant Honor Roll kids are finding their place in the sun with the Youth Coding League.”
And like teachers, Stacy’s work continues to be inspired by the students. When I asked what encourages her to give so much time to these programs, her answer was quite poignant:
“I am so fulfilled by the impact we’re having on students, especially kids in rural school districts that know how critically important the skill set is and are so enthusiastic to participate. I spend as much time in the classrooms as I can. Seeing the confidence the kids develop in themselves throughout the semester makes my daily to-do list a piece of that larger puzzle.”
Modelling Lifelong Learning
The benefits even extend beyond this. “For schools, this program is bringing an important extracurricular activity online they don’t necessarily have the resources or the bandwidth to generate on their own.”
And for the teachers, it’s giving them access to a skill set that they know is incredibly important to their students in a way that is supported. With a pre-set curriculum, teachers can have confidence bringing this to their students, and as they explore and discover learning opportunities alongside their students, it’s also “a great opportunity to model to students what a lifelong learner looks like.”
Powering Community Development
As the Marquette Tech District works to future proof the area’s workforce and self-define the region’s potential, Stacy explained what future readiness means to her:
“Being future ready means having the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to be successful at whatever jobs develop so that today’s students can support themselves and their families with dignity in the workplace someday.”
Learning to code extends far beyond learning about coding languages and algorithms, coding also develops 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking, and communication as well as social and emotional learning skills like grit and persistence.
Cape Girardeau, like so many communities in the United States, missed out on the economic growth associated with the Tech Boom. With automation and declining populations, these communities are seeing their livelihoods disappear and face mounting challenges like the digital divide and digital inequity.
The answers to these problems are complex and require creative and collaborative solutions, critical thinking and systematic problem solving, and grit and a growth mindset, which sound a lot like the skills developed when learning to code.
It’s safe to say that the impacts of the Marquette Tech District go so far beyond this one region; these are the skills and vision needed to tackle the larger problems impacting multitudes of communities. Coding isn’t the cure-all, but this gives us insight that leaning in to a problem – for example, the impacts of automation or insufficient local talent – and building connected and locally-oriented solutions help fuel the recovery and adaptation of a region. And in the case of the Marquette Tech District, investing in education programs that teach coding becomes more than just equipping students with future-ready skills but equipping the community as well.