For Terik Tidwell, teaching kids to code is not just about algorithms or apps—it’s about economic mobility.
Tidwell is director of STEM innovation at Johnson C. Smith University, an historically-black college situated in the heart of Charlotte, NC. The city is marked by contradiction: On one hand, the place is booming, home to the headquarters of Bank of America and an emerging start-up scene. But a recent analysis scored Charlotte worst for economic mobility in a survey of the nation’s 50 largest cities, with pockets of concentrated poverty cut off from the rich opportunities just around the corner.
Tidwell sees coding as a key bridge—a way to open kids’ eyes to a way of thinking, and a world of job opportunities.
“We see a lot of students are not going into computer science—they don't know about computer science,” says Tidwell. “I had one student a year or so ago who gave me feedback. I said why didn't you think about computer science? She's like, ‘I never thought of it. I didn't have it in high school. I didn't have any tech things.’”
The university is working to change that. Just this month it scored $1.8 million in grants—from the U.S. Department of Education and from the Kenan Charitable Trust—for a K-16 initiative to expose kids in nearby schools and at the university to computer science and entrepreneurship.
Tidwell talked with EdSurge about the effort during a recent conference at Stanford University for leaders of campus innovation efforts. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can listen to a complete version below, or on your favorite podcast app (like iTunes or Stitcher).
EdSurge: Could you talk about the work your university is doing with high schools in your area to teach computer coding?
Tidwell: As a new urban university, one of our missions is to think about, ‘How do we impact the communities around us?’ One of the ways is within the K12 area. So in K12, we want to see how we're able to support our teachers, our families and the students that are coming in. It may not have a direct beneficiary to the university, but it improves our social mission.
In North Carolina, we have a huge push to make sure STEM is in every school—that students are getting project-based learning. There's been a huge push from our state to adopt that computer-science-for-all.
So as a university you think about, how do we take our social mission to the community? How do we take our assets, our faculty, our knowledge our resources. How do we start to infuse that in supporting these institutions—and some of the teachers who are teaching science and math but do not have degrees in science and math, right? Particularly in some of the communities where the university's located, where there's not enough teachers with Master’s degrees or with Bachelor’s degrees in those core subject areas. Then start thinking about computer science. Who's teaching those kids those concepts? Do they fundamentally understand those concepts so that they can engage students?
We created a whole new college prep academy that's external to one of the schools we're partnered with to provide [students] with an out-of-school learning experience—using the assets from that school and the university combined together. That's been kind of a very cool co-creation, which says, Here's an after-school program where we're extending the learning process by bringing some of the university assets and school assets together.
Why focus on computer science, STEM and entrepreneurship?
How do we ensure the nearest access to this innovation economy, right? How do we create equitable growth and development? How to we start to have thriving communities? How do we both have equitable development and economic growth? How do we start to build this into our infrastructure?
Charlotte right now, where John C. Smith is located, was ranked 50 out of 50 in economic mobility for students or kids born into poverty to get out. It’s like a caste system. We want to open up the middle class. How do we do that? How do we provide them with an access to innovation?
That's kind of what this platform is about, is the access to innovation and access to opportunity. That's really important because we're seeing so much change happening with technology. It's affecting almost every industry—automation, robots. Then how do we provide people with the skills and knowledge for that future economy? We're going through industry transformations across the medical, legal, the financial sector. There will be jobs there currently not even invented yet.
We have to start thinking about ways to prepare everyone so that they can have that opportunity. For those who are in more impoverished communities, or who may not have access to those social networks, to those knowledge opportunities or those after school opportunities or during the summer opportunities, they may be missing out on some of those things. How do we provide them with the access to innovation?
We give them the access by providing them with summer camps. We served over 300 kids over the summer at free STEM summer camps. How do we provide them with more of a hands-on teacher-mentoring type of learning experiences with college students where they have a chance to see the model? We're trying to provide hope and faith. STEM is one way of moving students who may come from that bottom point to the upper [classes].
Our university is 150 years old—we just celebrated that this year. We’re an HBCU, and we were started after the Civil War. That means we were started with a mission to provide opportunity, to provide hope and faith, because we started with preachers and teachers. We now see it as we are evolving. This new urban university is modeled around place-based opportunity, place-based innovation and the university serving as both a platform and an anchor.
It's one thing to say, "I'm going to teach you computer coding." But you're talking about something bigger—bringing in entrepreneurship and thinking differently about education.
The most important thing you can do is model behavior. About a week ago I had about nine entrepreneurs come and visit from Taiwan, Hong Kong, Morocco, from Jamaica. So all these folks were doing some level of entrepreneurship, some level of innovation in their own countries. We’re bringing them to the university where they're sitting down with our faculty—and we actually invited some teachers and also some of the students to come be a part of that conversation. This is part of their education, to learn on a global level.
How do you prepare your students to overcome this divide as far as preparation for a tech-infused world?
This summer we just did our first pre-college computer science summer institute project—for students coming into university, to get them a much more of a deep immersed experience in coding and computer science. We see a lot of students are not going into computer science—they don't know about computer science. I had one student a year or so ago who gave me feedback. I said why didn't you think about computer science, she's like, I never thought of it. I didn't have it in high school, I didn't have any tech things.
So it comes with exposure. It comes with having a community, a safe place to explore. You're creating a community. There's 20 students who are coming in who have had no real exposure to computer science and go through three weeks—it’s intense, where they're up from like seven in the morning. They're coding around about nine till five, for three weeks. This is what we want to be able to do—this is what opportunity looks like. When you have a state where less than about five percent of the students who take the computer science AP exam are minority students, that's big.
With many challenges you noted in the communities your college serves, why spend so much resources devoted to computer coding. Does everyone really need to code? Are there other education programs that might have more impact?
Does everyone need to code? It depends. I think it's kind of like what do you mean by code, right? Because code can mean, does everyone need to know how to use Microsoft Excel, or does everyone need to know how to use different types of data visualization tools?
What do you see as the right definition?
Let's get away from the skill a little bit and start to focus on some of the competencies. Doing computational-thinking activities. That way they're developing this type of disposition or this type of mindset that may go into the world of computer science versus it just being, I know how to code.
But to be a great coder, you have to be able to focus, right? You're going to have to be able to solve problems that you've never seen. You got to be able to deal with ambiguity. You're going to have to be able to deal with a lot of it. That's a habit. Computational thinking for all.