“Coding means to tell a computer what to do.”
This crystal-clear explanation, which many adults might struggle to articulate, comes from an 11-year-old named Liliana Renaud. She is learning about computer programming at the nonprofit KodeConnect, founded by Eval Silvera ’99 of Brockton, Mass.
The venture has personal roots. The former Computer Information Systems major introduced his daughter,Tamia, to coding at a week long summer camp held at Bentley. They looked for a similar program near home where she could continue studies; other families were also interested, but balked at the cost.
“Most parents spend that money in a whole summer, let alone in one week,” says Silvera, whose full-time job is senior agile coach at LogMeIn. “We had to do something.”
KodeConnect launched on February 20, 2016, and held its first programs over April vacation that year. Now, they teach several classes per week that sell out in 24 hours (the minimal fee helps), sponsor two weekly clubs, and gather fifth-graders in a Robotics Club, which earned finalist honors in a recent coding competition. Is Silvera surprised by the quick takeoff? Not really.
“When it comes down to it, all they’re doing is solving problems,” he explains. “That’s something we do naturally as kids.”
KodeConnect joins a rising number of organizations out to increase technological savvy in specific populations. Groups such as Girls Who Code, Women Who Code and Black Girls Code are working to diversify the profile of who works in technology.
Nearly half of Brockton’s residents are black, Hispanic, or two or more races, according to national census data from 2010. For Silvera, the demographics represent enormous untapped potential.
“These kids have different viewpoints, different experiences,” he says. “That can help realize some amazing technical solutions in our everyday lives.”
The local community has embraced Silvera’s passion for the cause. Because KodeConnect lacks a physical location, the Brockton Public Library and W. B.Mason, an office supply chain with headquarters in Brockton, have stepped up with tech equipment and space for classes. W. B. Mason staff even volunteer after work hours to teach KodeConnect classes. In fact, Silvera has found that many of his contacts in the tech world, including engineer coworkers at LogMeIn, donate money if they can’t donate time.
According to the most recent data available from the National Center for Education Statistics,
in 2014,18% of all computer science graduates were women. In 1984, that figure had been 37%
19% of all graduates in 2014 were black or Hispanic; only 4.5% were black or Hispanic women
“The job of software engineer is lucrative and comes with a lot of perks. So a lot of people in that space are looking to reach out and get a better life for other people who don’t get exposure to our kind of work."
He goes on to note that Bentley alumni make up 80 percent of the KodeConnect board. “They really understand the importance of getting women and people of color into these fields.”
Silvera has a laundry list of hopes for KodeConnect: acquiring physical space of its own, expanding classes to high school students, teaching parents what their children are up to.
“Maybe we provide a ‘maker’ space, somewhere kids can tinker around. Or a place to work on science projects,” he adds. “We’d love to continue to work with teachers in public schools who may have reservations about STEM.”
In the larger fight to increase diversity in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering, math), organizations like KodeConnect are the critical boots on the ground. But Silvera doesn’t let the pressure of sweeping social change overwhelm him or his students.
“Our goal is that when students get to high school, it no longer becomes: ‘Oh, that’s a computer science class; I’m not interested.’ It’s more: ‘I’ve done this before; this sounds cool,’” he says. “We just want them to come, do some cool stuff, and be excited about it.”