When the coronavirus forced schools nationwide to shut down indefinitely, some 115,000 low-income students in Chicago, one of the country’s most segregated cities, were sent home without devices to use during quarantine.
It’s a hurdle that can make the desire to learn—both inside and outside the classroom—harder and certainly much less appealing. And while Chicago Public Schools is actively distributing more than 100,000 devices and free meals to these students, access to the internet is another lingering issue.
Data scientist Brianne Caplan, a Baltimore native and current Chicago resident, wants to keep many of these students from low-income Chicago households engaged and stimulated with an initiative that’s giving them access to free computer science resources. Her long-term goal? Creating a pipeline that’ll help break STEM’s glass ceiling.
Her recent launch of CoderHeroes, and its CoderCamp program, has two parts: students nationwide can sign up for computer science learning in lieu of cancelled in-person camps—a boon at a time when coronavirus is threatening summer activities. A portion of each virtual CoderCamp tuition is then donated back to her Code Your Dreams after-school program, which provides middle and high school students in low-income Chicago communities with free computer science courses as well as access to the laptops, WiFi and android devices they need for coding and app creation.
When Caplan first launched Code Your Dreams back in 2018, it was self-funded. CoderCamp, which took off early this year, is helping her fund programs for more students and schools in Chicago’s underserved neighborhoods.
“The digital divide has not been as clear as it is today, with schooling being transitioned online,” says Caplan. “Covid-19 not only made that divide so clear, but also the importance of us trying to bridge that divide and solve this problem.”
It’s unlikely that 10-year-old Caleb Washington, one of Caplan’s students who lives on the west side of Chicago, would have been exposed to coding had it not been for the Code Your Dreams after-school program. The result of his participation is an app that connects people with organizations they can donate to to help children in need in Africa, which can be accessed through MIT’s App Inventor Gallery and downloaded onto an Android. Washington is also hoping to revamp the app to feature Covid-19 relief efforts to donate to.
“I like helping people,” says Wasington. “It’s sad to know that people are suffering. I can change the app by adding on more charities to also try and get us one step closer to getting out of this coronavirus.”
6-year-old Yishan Wang, a student from another Code Your Dreams after-school program on Chicago’s south side, completed her wellness app right before shelter-in-place mandates hit the U.S., but she’s pleased it has become even more necessary in light of heightened stress and emotions that have emerged from the global crisis.
Wang’s app, which is available via Scratch, a programming service developed by the MIT Media Lab, begins with an animation of characters. Clicking on “Happy the Penguin,” for example, begins a series of breathing exercises. Another character, Leah, named after a friend of Wang’s in the coding program known for her positive personality, provides motivational messages. The app recently earned Wang third-place at the Chicago Student Invention Convention.
“I hope people feel calm from my app,” says Wang. “Covid-19 is here and people have to be more calm. This can really help.”
A new goal of Caplan’s is to give these students access to the virtual courses, too, and not just the after-school programs that have been put on pause. Earlier this month, with the help of three sponsors—an environmental engineer, a financial tech investor and a NASA computer scientist—she launched a scholarship program that grants students in underrepresented communities free tuition to an upcoming virtual CoderCamp.
So far Caplan has doled out four scholarships, including one for a student who typically attends the free Google and Apple camps that were cancelled this year. Caplan’s looking to award a total of 35 scholarships in amounts ranging from $ 800 to $ 2,100, but, if more people reach out to help sponsor, she’ll be able to increase the number.
The program was large in part inspired by the racial injustice that’s plaguing the nation, she says. By making CoderHeroes’ classes more representative and equitable, Caplan hopes it helps move the needle on racial equity—at least in the STEM field.
“My kids especially give me hope for change and progress even during this heavy and emotional time that they’ve been reckoning with,” says Caplan. “This empowers youth voice and action, which is so crucial right now.”