#CSStories: CoderSpace Transforms Chicago Youth, One Line of Code at a Time

| MSFT Chicago Staff

At the corner of Chicago’s Washington Park and Hyde Park, teenagers are crowded behind computer screens, building their futures, one line of code at a time.

CoderSpace, a program that provides coding education and opportunities to students aged 14-17, is driving digital literacy for Chicago’s future. Three programs — a summer apprenticeship, Saturday sessions, and coding clubs in local high schools — promote essential basic coding skills in Chicago’s youth, led by Executive Director Demond Drummer.

No stranger to Chicago’s digital spaces, Drummer founded CoderSpace while working as an organizer in Englewood. Inspired by the late Septima Clark, Drummer believes that literacy (in this case, in the digital realm) is a means to freedom and power.

“Digital literacy is a means to power to understand how technology works,” Drummer explains. “If we’re not participating, we’re getting left behind.”

CoderSpace started as a summer camp in 2011, where students learned basic HTML and CSS. After the summer wrapped up, a student walked in to Drummer’s office looking for the same opportunity — and Drummer couldn’t say no.

“I took him to the conference room and pulled out used laptops,” he says. “We opened notepad and we started writing HTML/CSS code. This kid changed the background color and his eyes lit up, and he asked if he could do this as a job. It’s a very innocent, simple question that really got to the heart of the fact that many young people here were swimming in tech but didn’t see that they could do something with it. How do we make this world of digital production — writing code to build things — how do we spread it around?”

The next summer, Drummer launched Englewood Codes — and down the line, CoderSpace emerged.

Students at CoderSpace learn computing languages like JavaScript, HTML, and CSS, which they then use to build websites for small businesses and organizations in Chicago, particularly in the South Side.

“A website is so much more than just a website – it is an expression of our entire economy, an artifact of our society,” explains Drummer. “In building websites from scratch, we practice the different habits of mind and modes of production that go into the technologies we take for granted.”

And students are already benefitting from the program. Two alumni, Briana Washington and Derek Townsend, started as participants in the summer of 2015 and are now instructors for the program while they study computer science at local colleges.

Washington, a student at Kennedy-King College, is looking to pursue a career in tech, and has credited CoderSpace for inspiring her drive in the field — which she wants to give back to current students.

“My goal for this upcoming summer is to continue to teach students difficult material and encourage them along the way to explore a career in tech and other unconventional careers,” she explains. “I think there’s a plethora of fields my generation doesn’t consider that they should think about.”

Townsend went into his undergraduate career at Illinois State University focused on business, but switched to an information technology major as he started to do more programming. He credits CoderSpace for giving him confidence and communication skills as he continues to work in a team-based setting, which drew him toward his new career focus.

“CoderSpace gave me more experience and knowledge regarding the tech world, which helped focus the career I planned on going into,” Townsend tells us. “It also gave me the drive to start looking for jobs and possible internships when previously I didn’t even have a resume.”

We’re seeing a shift as students begin to learn more toward computer science education, but the progress is still slow — while 71% of new jobs in STEM are in computer programming, only 8% of STEM graduates major in computer science, per code.org. Drummer aims to fix that by bringing college-level concepts to CoderSpace students.

“At Stanford, professors are teaching intro computer science courses in JavaScript,” explains Drummer. “It’s a legitimate programming language. Derek organized a computer science study group in college because the programming concepts he learned doing JavaScript at CoderSpace carried over to learning Java at Illinois State. Given his knowledge and experience, Derek’s classmates kept asking him for help.”

Even if CoderSpace alum don’t pursue a career in computer science, Drummer still sees the skills they learn as fundamental in any field.

“Computer science is an exceedingly capacious and relevant field,” Drummer says. “We constantly encourage CoderSpace youth to apply what they’re learning — and how they’re learning — to whatever it is they are most passionate about.”

Learn more about Microsoft’s commitment to computer science education here.

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