Unscripted: To Mars and Beyond with Alyssa Carson
Alyssa Carson is following her dream to be the first person to walk on Mars. Learn more about her journey and why she encourages everyone to share their dreams out loud.
Movies and television shows like to portray coding as a solo activity. They typically include dramatic shots of a lone genius typing furiously in a dark room, saving the world with just a few keystrokes. In the real world, coding is about collaboration and helping society through creative problem-solving.
That’s the lesson that high school students are getting through Code2College, a career prep and college access program designed to dramatically increase the number of minority and low-income high school students who enter and excel in STEM undergraduate majors and careers. Students from these groups are underrepresented in the technology industry’s talent pipeline: In the United States, only 21 percent of engineering majors and 19 percent of computer science majors are women, and only 22 percent of all science and engineering bachelor’s degrees go to Black, Latinx, or Native American students. That means companies are missing out on the diverse perspectives and talents needed for innovation. And students are missing out on high-paying careers, which can ultimately help close gender and racial wealth gaps in our society.
The reasons for this underrepresentation include systemic biases, a lack of access to quality STEM education, and a lack of role models from diverse backgrounds. By providing these high school students with hands-on, immersive coding instruction and opportunities to work on real-world projects with engineers and other tech industry professionals, Code2College is helping students discover their own potential and the limitless opportunities that exist in STEM fields. They’re learning that coding is fun and collaborative and that the tech industry is a place where they belong.
Anne-Marie Prosper made this discovery during her senior year at Stony Point High School in Round Rock, Texas, when she and a group of three other Austin-area students worked together to develop a website that would help other high school students who were struggling with academic and mental health issues. It was the group’s Code2College capstone project. To build the site, Anne-Marie and her group used their newfound web programming and development skills gained through Code2College’s after-school classes—along with lots of teamwork.
“We learned a lot about collaborating with one another,” said Anne-Marie. “We’d bounce ideas off each other to build up to a plan. We would learn new things that we wouldn’t have thought to incorporate, and that’s what made the project so strong.”
Anne-Marie and her group got an opportunity to present their capstone project to a panel of senior tech executives, prospective employers, school leaders, and their families as part of Code2College’s third-annual Demo Day held at H-E-B’s Eastside Tech Hub campus. Anne-Marie and her team won second place and a total of $6,000 in college scholarship dollars from Google. Anne-Marie is now in her first year at The University of Texas at Austin, studying computer science.
“I love how open-ended and versatile computer science is. You’re given these tools, like Python, but then you can do whatever you want with them—we made a website, but other people made things like games,” said Anne-Marie.
Hands-on, Volunteer-Powered Learning
Anne-Marie is one of the more than 1,000 students Code2College has served since its founding in 2016. The nonprofit provides hands-on learning in Austin-area schools but this year has also expanded to serve students across the country in eight other markets including Philadelphia, Houston, Dallas, Minneapolis, and Denver. Its after-school coding instruction now includes five separate curricula ranging from its Boot Camp Program for coding novices to its Software Engineering Leadership Program for more advanced students interested in pursuing paid, summer internships that involve back-end technologies. Further, Code2College hosts monthly professional development workshops and STEM industry case competitions to enable students to learn real-world skills with leading tech companies such as Google, Silicon Labs, and Indeed.
“Our workshops are one of the most impactful levers of our program. When students set foot into these corporate offices that they otherwise wouldn’t have access to, it’s like a light bulb goes off and they say, ‘I could work here’,” said Matt Stephenson, chief executive officer and cofounder of Code2College. “Getting to spend five or six hours on a Saturday working with volunteers to learn a new skill or about a new industry…that type of exposure is life-changing.”
Matt Stephenson, CEO and Cofounder of Code2College
At the workshops, Code2College students have developed their first resumes, practiced interview skills with company volunteers, and even developed exploratory projects they then presented to senior managers from the hosting company. This skills-based volunteering from professionals is critical to Code2College’s program model.
“We don’t do career panels,” said Matt. “We want students to be able to internalize the work and culture of these companies. We want them to see themselves at these companies. That takes active engagement, getting their hands dirty, and immersing themselves in the work, not just listening passively.”
Code2College also provides high school students with college scholarships and paid summer internships at partner companies. Anne-Marie landed an internship with athenahealth the summer after she graduated from high school. She worked with the consumer financials back-end team on a digital payment integration project and received daily support from a teammate who served as a mentor. She’s already accepted an offer to return to the company for a summer 2021 internship.
Code2College’s program model reflects the unique background of the organization’s founder. Matt’s experience as a Goldman Sachs analyst, high school math teacher, and educational nonprofit executive enables him to understand the needs of students, teachers, administrators, and technology leaders. With entrepreneurial roots in his Jamaican family and a childhood deeply based in church service, he’s always had a desire to give back and to build something great. His experience at an organization called Sponsors for Educational Opportunity showed him what greatness meant to him: leveling the playing field of opportunity for others.
“The experience changed my life,” said Matt. We were working with students from the Ivies like Yale and Harvard to lesser-known schools like Kennesaw State University, saying ‘if you’re hungry and if you’ve got the skills, it doesn’t matter what zip code you were born in or what school you’re going to, we’re going to provide access to incomparable opportunities.’ So, we had students interning at Deutsche Bank, Goldman Sachs, Bank of America and killing it—and many of these students would have never had that level of access.”
From paying his way through college by developing websites, Matt knew technology was another pathway to new possibilities. And so, many years later the Code2College model was born: leverage volunteer technical talent to equip underserved high school students with the skills and exposure necessary to excel in STEM fields and forever change their trajectories.
Leveling the Playing Field for Black and Latinx Women
The majority of the students whom Code2College serves are Black or Latinx (76 percent) and female (53 percent). Because these groups are the most impacted by inequities in society and the technical workforce, Code2College has developed Vision 2024: a bold initiative to support and place 200 Black and Latinx women into STEM roles by 2024.
A four-year, $400,000 grant from NI recently helped Code2College close its funding round for Vision 2024. The company will also support Code2College through volunteering, workshop hosting, and high school internship opportunities. Matt cites NI as a prime example of a company that is holistically supporting a drive for diversity in STEM fields by partnering with them.
“A person’s imagination is limited by their experience, and that’s why immersive experiences with companies like NI are so important,” said Matt. “If you ask a high school student what they want to be when they grow up, they’re never going to say, ‘a test engineer’ if they’ve never heard of test engineering, let alone understand how critical it is to all of us.”
This broadening of horizons is a mutual exchange. Companies who partner with Code2College benefit greatly from students’ diverse perspectives—and talents that often belie their ages. Matt recalls one company telling him they were so impressed with their 16-year-old intern that they’d hire him as a software developer level III (out of five possible levels). And he remembers another student who could not afford the SAT admissions fee during the program but was able to after having saved enough money from her subsequent Code2College internship with Indeed. In fact, she was also able to cover her college admissions deposit to Texas A&M University and purchase a used car to get to campus. She has now interned at Indeed for several summers and will soon graduate from college.
“People consistently underestimate high school students,” says Matt. “But they are capable of so much more than we give them credit for, and it’s just so critical to get more people involved in the work we’re doing so everyone can see that.”
As part of our $3.4 million commitment to advancing diversity in STEM education, NI has awarded Code2College a grant of $100,000 per year for the next four years. Learn more about Code2College’s mission at code2college.org and NI’s commitment to Changing the Faces of Engineering.