Updated: 2 p.m. July 30
In a brightly painted basement room at the Father Ryan Center in McKees Rocks, teens sit with laptops out and headphones on. Most are new to coding, and they’re working in languages such as Python, Java and SQL.
Five hours a day, four days a week for six weeks, the group of nine is meeting to learn to code — and they’ll learn how it could impact their futures. The group is one of two summer cohorts of Beta Builders, a program teaching coding to high schoolers.
It’s the second year for a summer cohort, but the first time meeting students in their communities.
Beta Builders started as a high school spinoff of Academy Pittsburgh’s adult coding program. But it was difficult for the students to get to Allentown, program Director Maximilian Dennison said.
So this year, Beta Builders worked with community partners to bring the classroom to the students.
During the 2017-18 school year, Beta Builders met at Brashear High School. This summer, Beta Builders partnered with Sto-Rox School District and Learn and Earn in McKees Rocks and 1Nation Mentoring in the Hill District.
This school year, Beta Builders will expand to Brasher, Perry, Carrick and Westinghouse high schools — two in the fall semester and two in the spring, he said. Plus, the program will also be at Carnegie Library of Pittsburgh, starting in Homewood.
The program will be adapted for each cohort, since everyone works differently and most start with no knowledge of coding, Dennison said.
“They understand that programming is out there, [but] they don’t understand the connection in the everyday life,” he said.
On the first day of the summer session, Dennison asked students in McKees Rocks to Google coding languages and the salary potential.
Coding is difficult, “so part of the encouragement is the intention behind it,” he said, adding that this isn’t something students learn and never use again. It can put them on a path to their futures.
From there, the students picked a language they wanted to learn in order to build websites.
Each week, students file reports, and Dennison uses that to stay “ten steps ahead of them.” He’s a former English teacher who specializes in Java Script and Ruby, and said he gave himself a crash course in the different coding languages to help students.
Dennison reminds students to get to work, and in some cases, works one-on-one with them. He expects them to code with the rules he uses for himself: Snacks are OK and so is listening to music, as long as one headphone is off and work is getting done.
The summer session also includes speakers who talk about entrepreneurship.
For Lamont Williams, who will start ninth grade at Sto-Rox in the fall, the opportunity to sit still and work on something is part of the draw to coding. He picked Java because of the money he could make doing it as a career, though he said he’s not sure what he wants to do after high school.
While Williams had done some coding before Beta Builders, the summer session is a first for some of his classmates including Klintae Dashawn and Sanyia Wright, incoming sophomores, who are both learning Phython. It’s a long process, they said, noting that they aren’t sure coding is for them, but know it would appeal to kids in their high school.
Whether or not they stick with coding, Dennison said they’re learning something new and retaining the information. Plus, he said, the students will tell him that they notice coding languages more now, whether it’s in a video game or on a makeup website.
“It’s also about mentorship and getting them to think ahead,” he said.
Earlier this year, a new regional coalition focused on computer science literacy for K-12 students — CSforPGH — launched during Inclusive Innovation Week. It aims to create inclusivity and equity in computer science, said LaTrenda Leonard Sherrill, the computer science lead for Remake Learning, which runs CSforPGH.
Coding, like other computer science skills, is about computational thinking — how to solve problems and puzzles, she said. When students learn those skills, it can disrupt their path in a good way, Leonard Sherrill said, adding that students learn they have skills they didn’t know they had.
In many ways, she said the Pittsburgh area is ahead of the curve when it comes to computer science education, but there’s still more to be done, such as building teachers’ skills.
“Most of the people that know computer science, are in industry, not teaching,” she said. CSforPGH is working on a manual to help educators implement computer science, so they can develop and grow school day programs, in addition to after-school activities.
At Beta Builders, the goal is to continue to grow and expand to all Pittsburgh Public high schools, as well as those in Woodland Hills and Aliquippa, Dennison said. It’s about generating interest and exposure to coding, as well as “making that connection for the students.”