Smart Lab Facilitator Deidre Johnson teaches block coding to freshmen Chelsea Shanks, Nyshun Lang and Alexis Dora at Columbus High School on Wednesday. A new program funded through Innovate Mississippi and the Mississippi Development Authority will soon offer high school graduates in Columbus who aren't attending college to learn coding as a vocational skill. Photo by: Deanna Robinson/Dispatch Staff
May 18, 2017 10:54:45 AM
In the fall, local students will take part in the inaugural year of the new Mississippi Coding Academy program.
The program, which begins in September, will focus on teaching coding and interpersonal skills necessary for working to 2017 high school graduates who are not going to college. Columbus and Jackson are the two Mississippi cities starting coding academies through the program.
Columbus Municipal School District Superintendent Philip Hickman, who is volunteering to help organize the academy separate from his duties with the school district, said the program is based on the Base Camp Coding Academy, which recently finished its first year in Water Valley.
"They took 11 high school graduates that just graduated that year and put them through a year-long coding program," Hickman said. "They taught them both coding skills and they taught them the executive skills -- the soft skills and interpersonal skills (needed) to be successful in a workforce environment -- for a whole year from 8-4 every day.
"Those students just graduated (from the program) this May, and 100 percent received a job (paying) $50,000, $60,000, $70,000-plus in different local industries in Mississippi," Hickman added.
Innovate Mississippi, a Ridgeland-based nonprofit, and the Mississippi Development Authority are partnering to form the academies.
Richard Sun, chairman of Innovate Mississippi, said the academies are seeking similar success to the Base Camp Coding Academy.
"What Base Camp did, and what we're trying to replicate, is to take kids that aren't going to college or junior college and turn them into commercial-grade programmers whose skills are immediately valuable to industry," Sun said. "They can walk out of the coding academy at the end of the assignment and have a commercially-viable set of skills."
Hickman said the academies have received $500,000 in public funding support for the first year through MDA. The course will not cost anything for selected students.
Sun said the hope is for the academies to ultimately become self-sustaining through private donations and placement fees from private companies.
Building the classes
Each academy is aiming to have 15 to 20 students, and Hickman said he's working with CMSD, Lowndes County School District and West Point School District to recruit applicants. The program is on a three-year pilot, Hickman said, with plans to grow to 40 students, then 60 in the subsequent two years.
Hickman said work is also progressing to find two instructors for the academy -- one with experience in coding and another who can teach the workforce skills for the course. The classes will also work with local industrial leaders and businesses to provide hands-on training for students.
Sun said it's important to have an instructor who's active in the coding field and knows about the industry's current needs.
"One of the problems with a lot of education, historically, is the instructors tend to be a little bit out of date in terms of their knowledge," Sun said. "We will try to address that."
Hickman also noted that students don't have to have previous coding experience.
"Only three kids in the base camp had an interest in computer science," Hickman said. "Now they all love it. We really just want a thinker. We want a child that has stick-to-it-ness and problem solving skills, who are just choosing to do something different."
Becoming a coding source
Hickman said Mississippi is already struggling to produce the number of coders needed to meet demand within the state. Demand, both in the state and across the nation, is only going to grow with time, he said, and the academies offer Mississippi a chance to produce the talent needed to address that issue.
"We know that robots are going to replace a lot of the jobs," Hickman said. "We want kids to be the ones who are designing and programing that machinery that's going to replace the low-level jobs that would usually be available. It's an ever-increasing demand."
Sun echoed Hickman's statements. He said drawing coders to Mississippi often means bringing in foreign workers on visas or trying to draw people from other states. Both options, he said, can be expensive and risky, if someone doesn't adjust to life in Mississippi.
"If we become a source of coding, people will come to Mississippi to get their coding done," Sun said. "People will outsource to Mississippi. We're never gonna be a Silicon Valley, but we can create a thriving environment for coders who are part of the new economy instead of the old economy.
"The long-term goal is to add to what's a small but unrecognized, to some extent, coding community in Mississippi," he added.
C Spire is a sponsoring company for the Base Camp Coding Academy.
Dave Miller, senior manager for media relations, said the company has taken on four of the Base Camp graduates as interns, with plans to employ them after they finish their summer internship program.
C Spire encourages coding exposure to children in other was as well, Miller said, such as hosting a coding challenge in April for 60 students.
C Spire uses programming in many ways, Miller said, from its website and the associated support systems, to maintaining its cellular network and customer service.
Miller said C Spire is not only pushing for increased exposure to programming curriculum in schools, but encouraging its own workforce to become more tech savvy. He said that the business landscape has shifted so that very few fields don't deal with software in some manner. Coding, he said, has become "the digital equivalent to electricity."
"It's the difference between success and failure as a business," Miller said. "When I say success, you can have short-term success, but long-term, you're not going to be able to grow, adapt, change and advance without a robust information technology core in your business."
Miller also referenced the shortage of programmers in the state, and across the country. He said a continued focus on information technology fields is needed to help address the issue.
"It's absolutely to have a robust computer science and information technology focus -- not just in the schools, but those individuals, when they graduate, deciding to pursue careers in that areas so we can drive innovation, create jobs and grow our economy," he said. "Like it or not, we live in a digital world and it's only going to become more and more about zeroes and ones."
Solving that issue, Miller said, will take a broad effort through multiple collaborative fronts. But, he said with programs like the Base Camp academy and those being set up in Columbus and Jackson, the state can begin to improve its programmer shortage.
"It's going to take a joint effort by the public and private sectors, as well as companies like C Spire that use technology and rely very heavily on it," Miller said. "...I think it's going to take a unified effort to really make a dent in this problem."
For more information, contact Hickman at 630-359-7435 or DrPhilipHickman@gmail.com
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