Reflections by Christopher Hooten, Higher Achievement DC Metro, Alumni Engagement AmeriCorps VISTA
In March, I had the opportunity to chaperone a field trip to the Capital One headquarters with 38 Alexandria Achievement Center scholars. It was one of my favorite days at Higher Achievement. The scholars who attended are very motivated 5th through 7th grade scholars from under-supported communities. They are predominantly first generation Americans with parents from Ethiopia, Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Nigeria, Honduras, and Mexico.
Scholars were first given a crash course on how to code using a colorful curriculum. Their first task was to apply their newly learned knowledge in creating a simple whack-a-mole program and then a more complex painting app that allowed the user to make colorful pictures using their fingers. After lunch, the Capital One staff supported the scholars as the final and most challenging task was presented.
The scholars, now amateur coders, worked in pairs to craft creative apps. They had to create a persona, give said persona a problem, and conceptualize a phone application (app) that would solve the problem. It was a very complex process and the Capital One software engineers worked tirelessly to support our scholars.
There were some hiccups; some students felt frustrated and stated that they wanted to quit. The Capital One staff encouraged them to ask for help, think outside of the box, and to be persistent in solving the problem.
At the end of the day, after some frustration, all scholars completed an app that they created themselves. I was amazed at how persistent the scholars were, at how much grit they showed. I saw some amazing apps. One group of scholars created an app to allow a user to ask other users who were in close physical proximity to them, for their wifi password (think Airbnb for wifi). Another group created an app to find out all of the flavors and prices of ice cream in their area, and who doesn’t need that in their lives? Another group created an app to learn how to play basketball. It gave instructions, kept score, and even encouraged the user to keep doing their best.
As a first generation college graduate from an under-supported community, I know how powerful an opportunity this was. As a middle-school student, the thought of creating my own app or visiting the national headquarters of a finance company to meet software engineers would have never crossed my mind. The skills of coding are especially under-represented among first generation children. I asked the three girls at my table who are of East and Central African descent to look around and count how many of the software engineers in the room that day, looked like them or their sisters. They told me they didn’t see any. I told them that they could be the next generation of engineers.
At the end of the day as scholars left, the scholar that had the most trouble gave me a hug for believing in her. And even though I was exhausted from a full day of chaperoning, I felt that for at least that one scholar, I had made a difference that day.