Chatham Views

Encoding Confidence: All Star Code Teaches Tech Skills on Chatham’s Campus

At the All Star Code Summer Intensive, when a student fails, he proclaims it out loud. “I have failed!” he announces. And everyone cheers.

Needless to say, this isn’t your typical summer camp.

Founded in New York City, All Star Code is a nonprofit computer science education organization focused on bringing tech skills to Black and Latino young men. Chatham University was the proud host of the first-ever Pittsburgh Summer Intensive in 2017 as part of Chatham’s Music and Arts Day Camp program’s focus on lifelong learning. Chatham is the first university to host the program, aligning with our historic mission of extending education and opportunity to underserved populations.

In addition to the very real skills of coding and web development, the six-week program teaches students from all over Pittsburgh the ability to recognize setbacks as successes. Why celebrate failure? All Star Code’s Pittsburgh Area Director Sean Gray explains it this way:

Fear of failure is what keeps us from trying, from doing so many things. 72% of students in All Star Code don’t know coding or computer science. They dared greatly just to apply, to walk in the door. They understand the concept of failing and are taught to fear it outside. But in the classroom, we celebrate it, in the hopes that they dare greatly again.”

All Star Code places a strong emphasis on prepping students not only with technical skills, but also with interpersonal ones. These so-called “soft skills” like collaboration, networking, and professionalism help students gain a confident, entrepreneurial mindset that gives them tools for success beyond technical know-how.

When they’re not sharpening their networking skills or coding on Chatham’s campus, students have the chance to go on site visits to major Pittsburgh companies like Google, Shell Games, and BNY Melon.

All Star students on campus at Chatham University.

“The site visits were my favorite part,” says Isaiah Massey, of Allderdice High School. “I think they’re interesting in that they give us a live aspect of what coding can do.”

We’re sitting outside Café Rachel on Chatham’s Shadyside campus, the July sun beaming. All Star students also receive small-group mentor sessions with area professionals who counsel them on college choice, productivity strategies, and professional networking. As Chatham’s Social Media Manager, I happily volunteered as a mentor.

“Google was amazing!” Concurs Marcus Jones, of Barack Obama Academy. “They showed us so much stuff, the different sections of the whole site and really explained it. All the site visits were great because they showed me who’s involved in the tech industry and helped me visualize what’s going on.”

That’s precisely the goal of All Star Code— to open access into the technology industry for under-represented population. Currently, there are no other national organizations fostering, exposing or educating young men of color for careers in tech. Though 75% of the students attending the Pittsburgh Summer Intensive are eligible for free lunch, students come from all different backgrounds, skill-levels, and familiarity with coding.

The students I mentored couldn’t be more different in personality. Isaiah is astute, witty, a lover of animals. Marcus has work ethic and business savvy in spades. Hasaan Ismaeli of Penn Hills High School is quiet, focused, an athlete. Darius Watts from Central Catholic High School approaches every topic with earnestness and wonder, always smiling. And Jayden Walker of Woodland Hills High School practically crackles with excitement when he talks about coding.

“I liked the overall learning experience here,” he said. “I’ve always liked coding and working with computers, learning how to manipulate what’s on the screen is kind of fun for me. Seeing the stuff I create come alive with this little text… it’s just satisfying.”

All Star students present their final project concepts at Demo Day.

The satisfaction of a job well done culminates at Demo Day, where the students present collaborative group projects they’ve worked on for days. Demo Day certainly has the energy and excitement of a graduation ceremony. Parents, teachers, friends, and community members packed the first Demo Day in Pittsburgh, held in trendy co-working space Ascender in East Liberty. To plenty of applause and proud smiles, students shared their app ideas, small business pitches, and more.

Not all of these projects will make it into implementation, and not every All Star Code participant will go into tech. But the track record so far has been impressive:

100% of All Star alums are attending college, and 95% of them intend to major in computer science-related disciplines. What’s more, All Star Code’s emphasis on fostering an entrepreneurial mindset means that students leave the Summer Intensive with a new, more confident worldview.

Back at the sunny table with my mentor group, I ask them if the program has changed their way of thinking. Jayden immediately pipes up:

“It built work ethic. If it wasn’t for the camp… I wouldn’t…”

“I’d just hang around all day!” Darius finishes for him. Everyone laughs. They joke about video games, procrastination, and how they’ve spent summers past, before All Star Code. But then Darius get serious for a second, and says:

“It gives you something important to do.”

A summer making connections, daring greatly, with a purpose in sight… that’s a summer well spent indeed.

The Chatham Music and Arts Day Camp provides intensive music and art experiences to students Pre K – 9th grade. Campers also enjoy traditional summer camp activities such as swimming and sports to supplement the core art, theater and music curriculum.