Photo of students at computers learning coding

Only 29 percent of jobs in science, technology, engineering or mathematics (STEM) fields are currently held by people of color. It’s not a lack of interest in these fields that prevent minority students from entering the workforce, but rather a lack of access and awareness.

But that’s changing for youth in the communities of Austin and Little Village, two United Way Neighborhood Networks.

Students in these communities are learning the fundamentals of coding thanks to Apple’s Everyone Can Code (ECC) program. ECC teaches Swift, an easy-to-learn programming language, through gamification, making it accessible for everyone. The program has a strong focus on coding in the classroom and curriculum for teachers, with the Chicago initiative focusing on students within Chicago Public Schools and City Colleges.

However, with a shortage of computer science teachers, particularly in underserved communities, and an increasing demand for a strong and diverse population of coders, Apple’s curriculum is flexible enough to be used across other platforms.

A collaborative network exists to help launch and implement coding camps in the neighborhoods of Austin and Little Village. The City of Chicago, JPMorgan Chase, Department of Family and Supportive Services, Chicago Public Schools, Thrive, Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses, United Way and Apple have joined forces and expertise to support this effort. With Austin’s focus on addressing workforce needs and Little Village’s efforts to increase STEM activities in after-school programs, these two Neighborhood Networks were the perfect place to start.

“United Way’s hope is to see coding programs in the elementary, middle and high schools in all 10 Neighborhood Networks, developing a pipeline that can lead directly to internships with corporate partners and ultimately jobs in tech or the creative space,” said Jaime Arteaga, Manager of Community Engagement at United Way of Metro Chicago.

The goals of ECC are to help people learn new skills, open doors to additional opportunities and serve as a conduit for solving community-wide problems. And it’s doing just that. “The future of work is constantly adjusting and United Way plays a critical role in connecting our funded agency partners to promising practices and the required partnerships that facilitate success and competitiveness in various arenas,” says Ayom Siengo, Senior Manager of Financial Capability at United Way of Metro Chicago. “From IT and code to other 21st century practices, we are interested in being a conduit of technical assistance resources and support for residents throughout the metro region.”

The coding camps culminated in an app showcase at end of May where top students got to display the apps they created. One student created an app that would connect friends who wanted to play a game of pickup basketball by helping to locate open parks and allow them to reserve a court. Another student developed an app for single parents so that his mother, a single mom, would be able to access resources and find support from other single parents in their community.

While these are solving tangible needs in the communities, it’s not just about the short term results.

“There is a lot of interest in programming and apps in our community,” said Omar Magana, Executive Director of Open Center for the Arts, one of the community partners hosting the coding camps. “The parents are excited to know there is more opportunities in the community that better prepare their children.”

United Way is currently helping the students who finished the program connect to internships across the Chicago region through the City of Chicago’s One Summer Chicago program. The apps created through the coding camp are being used as a demonstration project to aid students as they apply for placements, demonstrating to local businesses that their skills are valid for employment. At the same time, the students are filling the businesses’ need for young, talented individuals who represent the diversity of Chicago and who love coding and technology.

“From large to small organizations across the region, corporate partners are actively looking for increasingly meaningful opportunities to connect their HR needs to proven approaches, and this is one of them,” says Ayom.

“United Way is perfectly situated to connect community partners’ needs with those of our corporate partners, creating a mutually beneficial relationship that goes beyond charity,” Jaime adds, “There is a need for youth to connect outside their communities and this opportunity is providing them connections that can lead them to long term employment.”

The skills and the baseline information students gain through coding will benefit them, regardless of what their future careers may be. These include skills like creativity, collaboration, and logistical and computational thinking.

While it is a goal to see Chicago continue to grow as a tech hub, Apple also recognizes that diversity of thought – which comes from diverse experiences, backgrounds and cultures – is what can really create lasting change across the region and beyond.

A shared goal of Apple, United Way and the community partners is to empower students with the transferable and relevant skills they need for whatever career path they decide to take.

Omar sees a lot of excitement and confidence in the students participating in his coding camp. “It’s a great benefit to know there are option like this in our community,” he adds.