Developing the next generation of coders

Dave Vasko, director of advanced technology for Rockwell Automation, looks at a website built by Arely Ornelas, a student at Veritas High School.
Dave Vasko, director of advanced technology for Rockwell Automation, looks at a website built by Arely Ornelas, a student at Veritas High School.

Last updated on November 25th, 2019 at 07:03 am

Dulce Martinez didn’t initially think coding was for her.

A seventh-grade student at Roger Street Academy in Milwaukee, Martinez thought it seemed kind of boring. But after a two-week coding camp, she’s changed her mind.

“I like it a lot more than I did when I first got into it,” she said. “I see myself doing this in the future because it’s really interesting and fun.”

This summer, Martinez was among a group of middle school girls to participate in a coding camp, put on by Madison-based youth STEM nonprofit organization Maydm, supported by Milwaukee-based Rockwell Automation and hosted at the Milwaukee School of Engineering. The camp was open to girls from the Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, with the goal of providing them with exposure to careers in which women, and particularly women of color, are underrepresented.

Maydm, which provides girls and youth of color in grades 6-12 with technology training through after-school and summer programming, aims to fill in the computer science curriculum gap. According to Code.org, less than half (42%) of all public high schools in Wisconsin teach computer science. And, among the state’s 1,190 computer science graduates in 2017, only 17% were female.

“Students need access to these skills because they’re not being taught in schools,” said Winnie Karanja, founder and executive director of Maydm. “… With the fact that tech is tied into every industry and it offers high wage careers, we want to make sure students are gaining access to that skill set.”

Over the summer, Rockwell Automation employees and engineering undergraduate students from MSOE guided the girls through the basics of coding, which they were able to put into practice by building their own websites.

At the culmination of the camp, students showed off their completed websites to Rockwell employees in the company’s Milwaukee headquarters.

Dave Vasko, director of advanced technology for Rockwell, said camps like Maydm’s are important in building the future workforce.

“The real gap is in the skills,” he said. “People coming into the workforce and those already in the workforce need to build their skills. Being able to code is a foundational skill for the future … The talent pipeline is at such a critical point. We (at Rockwell) are introducing some groundbreaking technologies but we need people that have tech skills to push them forward.”

Naijeli Pancheco, an eighth-grade student at Roger Street Academy, participated in the camp for a second time this year.

“I decided to join again because I really liked creating my own website because I felt like my imagination was coming true,” she said.

She was also initially reluctant to try coding, but it soon became a hobby.

“I think people should give things a try before they judge things,” she said. “That’s one thing I’ve learned about coding. I judged coding at first. You never know until you try.”

Vasko was impressed by what he saw at the showcase.

“In two weeks, they are able to do something that professional programmers have done,” he said. “With the confidence from what they’ve been able to accomplish in two weeks, what are they going to be able to do one year, two years, five years from now?”

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Lauren Anderson
Lauren Anderson covers health care, nonprofits, education and insurance for BizTimes. Lauren previously reported on education for the Waukesha Freeman. She graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she studied journalism, history and African studies. In her free time, Lauren enjoys spending time with family and friends and seeing live music wherever she can.