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The Value of Free STEM and Coding Bootcamps

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Participants in this year's Discover STEM day camp at the Universityof Minnesota.

A growing number of free summer camps offer young students coding classes and lessons in science, technology, engineering and math topics including computer science, artificial intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and cybersecurity.

Credit: University of Minnesota

There is a burgeoning movement to provide free Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) camps, courses, and scholarships to U.S. students. In some cases individuals have founded their own organizations; in others, they are the driving forces behind the creation of free STEM camps and courses at the colleges and universities where they teach. Still others are leveraging personal fame or executive positions at industry associations and high-tech vendors, donating their time and money to get students involved with STEM.

Paid-tuition STEM camps and coding boot camps have existed for over two decades. A study by Course Report, The Growth of Coding Bootcamps 2017, polled 98% of tuition-based U.S. and Canadian coding bootcamps and found that business is booming. The study identified a total of 95 bootcamps that will graduate an estimated 22,949 students in 2017; that's up from nearly 18,000 in 2016, and more than double the 10,000 students who participated in coding bootcamps in 2015. They typically run for 12 to 14 weeks at an average cost of $11,400 per student. Overall, the Course Report survey says they will generate gross revenues of $266 million this year.

However, the cost of the coding bootcamps is prohibitive for many economically disadvantaged families.

In the past five years, however, free STEM camps have emerged to offer coding classes and lessons in traditional STEM subjects like computer science (CS) and engineering, as well as technologies like Artificial Intelligence, robotics, virtual reality, and cybersecurity.

Recruiting younger

Free STEM camps are no longer just for high school students; they actively recruit middle-school, and even elementary school students, some as young as five or six. The intent is to cultivate a love of STEM at an early age, and provide students with a solid educational foundation in science well in advance of college.

"Getting students to be confident in their math and science skills by 4th grade is key to getting them on the path to become engineers, science or computer occupations," says Karl Reid, executive director of the National Society of Black Engineers (NSBE), Alexandria, VA, which has sponsored free STEM camps since 2007. "Usually about the 4th grade is when the kids change their career trajectory and attitudes about schools," he adds.

The University of Arizona (UA) College of Science, for example, offers Blast Off!, a free middle-school science summer camp. The one-week day camp, hosted each June by the UA Biochemistry Club, has middle-school "cadets" participate in intensive, structured activities that challenge students in scientific inquiry and understanding in a variety of STEM subjects.

In Hawaii, the Maui Economic Development Board's Women in Technology group has hosted its free STEMworks Summer Camps for the last several years. It serves nearly 140 students in a series of two-day hardware/software coding and workshops for grades 6 through 12 held on the islands of Maui, Oahu, and Molokai.

The new breed of STEM and coding camps and courses is also noteworthy for the diversity of the student populations they serve: many are geared towards minorities, girls, special-needs students, and economically disadvantaged children. 

Meeting STEM demand

The growth in free STEM and coding camps is well-timed.

The number of and demand for skilled STEM workers—most notably in CS and Engineering occupations—are rising. Data from the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics January 2017 Quarterly Outlook projects the number of STEM-related jobs will increase by 1.3 million by 2024,  64% of which are projected to be in computer and engineering-related positions.

However, women and minorities remain underrepresented in STEM occupations, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. The 2013 U.S. Census Bureau American Community Survey Report "Disparities in STEM Employment by Sex, Race, and Hispanic Origin" found that as of 2011 (the most recent available survey data), women held just 27% of STEM jobs. This study also found that Blacks and Hispanics are underrepresented in STEM employment.

"The United States and the world needs more engineers and more skilled STEM workers overall to improve the quality of life for humanity," says the NSBE's Reid. He says providing free training to the underserved populations of women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged, especially in the CS and engineering sectors, can raise the quality of life for everyone.

Over the last decade, the NSBE has run the Summer Engineering Experience for Kids (SEEK), a free three-week summer program aimed at attracting African-American youths—from third-graders to high school seniors—to engineering professions. SEEK now consists of 16 programs serving students in 15 U.S. cities, and this year, for the first time, SEEK hosted two all-female camps in Atlanta, GA, and Jackson, MS. SEEK has served 22,000 students since its inception, Reid says, and the program's "long-term strategic goal is to produce 10,000 African-American bachelor's degree recipients in engineering annually by 2025."

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) is a pioneer in free coding camps and courses. MIT's Office of Engineering Outreach Program (OEOP) now offers three national programs open to students and permanent U.S. residents, and one local course: the SEED Academy, which aims to help local Massachusetts youths break into STEM. Thanks to private and professional donations and grants, the programs are free to participants.

MIT offers the following free STEM outreach programs:

  • Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science (MITES), a six-week intensive program for high school seniors held on MIT's Cambridge, MA, campus.
  • E2@MIT is a one-week summer program in which students engage in a variety of intensive hands-on projects and career workshops.
  • MOSTEC is a six-month complete STEM program for high school seniors.

Individual entrepreneurs also are giving back to their communities by extending their own love of coding and spark that passion in others. That's the case of 25-year-old supermodel Karlie Kloss, who launched her own STEM coding day camp just a year after taking coding courses at the Flatiron School in New York City. The Kode With Klossy camps, a project of the New Venture Fund, a 501C-3 charitable organization, provide two weeks of free STEM coding courses for girls ages 13 to 18. No experience is necessary; the only requirements are that the girls live within commuting distance of the camps. This past summer, the camps hosted approximately 300 students in 15 camps in 10 U.S. cities.  The girls study front- and back-end software engineering and learn the fundamentals of the Web application framework Ruby on Rails. Kloss also awards a monthly Career Scholarship to a girl who aspires to pursue a career in coding.

The University of Minnesota's College of Science and Engineering school hosts two week-long summer day camps called "Discover STEM" that allows high school juniors and seniors to explore potential STEM careers via activities that include lab experiments, and science and technology demonstrations, as well as lectures and career panel discussions. The classes are held on the University's Minneapolis campus and are free thanks to corporate sponsorship from 3M Corp. of St. Paul and an anonymous private donor. The only charge is a $50 enrollment fee, which the University of Minnesota waives upon request to admitted students demonstrating financial need.

In South Carolina, entrepreneur Joshua Blassingame, founder of the Youth Link STEM Academy, brings the same level of passion and commitment to underrepresented small-town youths that Kloss does for young urban women. Blassingame, a South Carolina native, founded YouthLink in 2015 "to equip youth in rural South Carolina areas (Oconee, Pickens, Anderson, Sumter, Lee, Clarendon, and Williamsburg) with learning experiences that prepare them to be active, creative, knowledgeable, and ethical participants in our globally networked society." The YouthLink STEM Academy camps are held in rural Seneca and Sumpter, SC, both home to many economically disadvantaged students. In 2016, YouthLink served over 500 local children that might not otherwise had the opportunity to be exposed to STEM coding and education. 

YouthLink's goal is to foster critical thinking, collaboration, communication skills, and creativity through varied hands-on STEM activities facilitated by STEM professionals, says director of development Msiba Dalton. "It gives the kids an opportunity and exposure to something different than regular academia and ELA (English Language Arts). They learn how to use what they play with on the Internet and it teaches them how to code and move a BB-8. They understand this is job creation and you can get a well paying job to do something that you like," Dalton says. 

Alaska, one of the nation's most sparsely populated states with under a million residents, is also active in promoting free STEM camps and courses. Herb Schroeder founded the University of Alaska Anchorage's (UAA) Alaska Native Science and Engineering Program (ANSEP) in 1995 "to effect systemic change in the hiring patterns of Alaska Natives in science and engineering by placing our students on a career path to leadership." This summer, UAA's Middle School Academy taught 1,100 students over a 12-day period, dividing the students into teams that are given hands-on assignments like building drones, as well as having them take traditional STEM classes. "By the time the kids get to high school, 95% move up a full class grade following their participation in the STEM Summer Academy," Schroeder says.

In Utah, Salt Lake City-based software maker RizePoint has teamed up with the Canyons School District in nearby Sandy to co-develop a STEM-oriented co-educational summer camp program aimed at students in grades 5 through 10. In the last two years, RizePoint has awarded scholarships covering the cost of the camps to 40 students from the district. "It is an honor to recognize and support these ambitious students," says Frank Maylett, RizePoint's chief executive officer. "One of our company goals is to contribute to the future of tech in Utah. We love helping local students develop an interest in science and technology."

Also in Utah is the Brigham Young University (BYU) Girls Cybersecurity Summer Camp, a free one-week coding experience for girls 13 to 18, now in its third year. The 2017 camp took place on BYU's Salt Lake City campus in July, thanks to sponsorship from an array of high tech vendors including Adobe, FireEye, Microsoft, Palo Alto Networks, 3M, and RedSky. The 40 students received hands-on cybersecurity instruction from BYU students enrolled in the university's IT program.

No replacement for college

STEM and CS educators acknowledge that free and tuition-based STEM and coding bootcamps provide students with a positive experience by exposing them to STEM topics. However, "Out-of- school free programs are one piece of the puzzle," observes Colleen Lewis, a CS professor at Harvey Mudd College (HMC) in Claremont, CA.

Lewis is also on the board of STEAM:Coders, a non-profit which has provided access to STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics) subjects (with an emphasis on CS) to minority students in the Los Angeles area; since 2014, the organization has served 3,000 students. Lewis says STEAM:Coders also partners with HMC to host free eight-week coding camps on Saturdays during the summer and fall for students in the predominantly "Latinx" Pomona School District.

Telle Whitney, CEO and president of the Anita Borg Institute for Women and Technology and co-founder of the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing, says she is "somewhat ambivalent about these camps. The STEM camps and coding boot camps have a real 'feel good' attitude about them. The caveat for me is that most lack significant ties to academia and they don't do follow up and track whether students stay involved in sTEM at the college level and beyond.

"That said, nothing but good can come of exposing middle and high school students to CS and other STEM subjects early via these camps and programs."

Maria Klawe, president of Harvey Mudd College since 2006 (and past president of ACM), concurs. "Free STEM camps and paid tuition coding boot camps are all good things; they expose students to CS and other STEM subjects," Klawe said.

However, Klawe says she devotes more of her efforts into nurturing and tracking women and minority students during their first year studying CS, engineering, and other STEM subjects at the college level. "I believe it's more impactful," Klawe says. "Getting students into a college where they'll focus on CS, Engineering, Science and Math for four consecutive years will yield much more positive outcomes than something they do for a few weeks in the summer."

Says NSBE's Reid, "If we're not tapping every population that has the capability to solve these problems, we're leaving a lot of talent on the table and a lot of problems unsolved."

Laura DiDio is principal at ITIC, a Boston-area IT consultancy.


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