Coding boot camps emerging as supplement to traditional tech instruction

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Gregorio Rojas stands with his most recent cohort of students who participated in his coding boot camp. | Photo courtesy of Gregorio Rojas

Coding boot camps, long on the fringe of traditional education spheres, are pushing their way into national conversation of how to attract more Americans into the STEM fields.

These boot camps, a product of the technology boom, are technical training programs designed to expose novice students to the most important aspects of the coding and web development field while guiding them to become innovators. Oftentimes boot camps lead students into jobs in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics industries.

Last month, the Department of Education rolled out its pilot program, EQUIP. The program, which is now open for application, allows colleges and universities to partner with non-traditional education models like boot camps, and gives students access to federal financial aid.

EQUIP is part of a growing initiative to help underwrite the cost of attending satellite programs that train students in career fields the country needs–particularly in the STEM fields in which the Obama Administration has encouraged more growth.

Yet, the concept of the recent policies supporting coding boot camps is not new in South Los Angeles. EQUIP would be supporting an educational model that has already taken root in the area, some educators say.

A few years ago, Gregorio Rojas and his wife founded Sabio, a startup focused on providing software development training to women and minorities. At Sabio, students spend 6 to 12 weekends in intensive programs learning to code, develop software and hone technical skills. At the end they hold the promise of standing on their own in the competitive STEM industries.

“One reason I do this is because I pretty much learned this way,” Rojas said of the boot camps. “It’s hands on, on the job, intense and very focused. I got into the industry right before the dot-com bubble burst. These skills facilitated my own entry.”

His coding boot camp is based in Culver City, but Rojas said many of his students have ties to the South L.A. community.

At boot camps, students spend hours learning code language — not from a book, but by implementation. The experience is intense, but the success of the methodology is proved each time Rojas’ students walk away with a firm grasp of the material and are later gainfully employed. Many times, students participate in hackathons, holding their own against competition.

Gregorio Rojas (left) celebrated the launch of two of his students' apps to the Apple Store.

Gregorio Rojas (left) celebrated the launch of two of his students’ apps to the Apple Store. | Photo courtesy of Gregorio Rojas

Recently Rojas celebrated the launch of two students’ app now featured in the Apple Store. Both creators of the app had been in two wildly different fields before the coding boot camp; one was a Spanish professor and the other was working in the financing world. At Sabio, the average student is a 30-year-old, according to its founders.

In the basement of South LA’s Southside Church of Christ, Chris Baccus also runs a coding boot camp — this one aimed at middle schoolers. Baccus, executive director of Concerned Citizens Community Involvement, helps run the camp on Saturdays. In one year, seventy students have gone through the non-profit’s Limitless STEM Academy.

The wide range of participant ages for the coding boot camps in South Los Angeles show the demand for alternative education models. Generally the camps are also less expensive options when compared to the norm.

At Sabio, a three-month program costs $13,450 though it is set to increase 7 percent to $14,450 in 2016.

Comparably, the estimated yearly cost for attending the University of Southern California, a four-year semi-private institution is $67,212, while the all-expense-covered yearly tuition for a University of California school is $33,600 for in-state residents. At a California State University such as Cal State LA, to receive a computer science degree, students would pay around $32,240. Most students would quadruple these costs during the four-year pursuit of a bachelor’s degree.

For an associate’s degree in computer information systems at Los Angeles Trade-Tech College, California residents pay around $2,070.

Baccus’ Limitless STEM Academy held on Manchester Avenue and Harvard Boulevard is free of charge for the middle school students.

Rojas sees EQUIP as a federal commitment to embracing more innovative styles of teaching and a sign that this type of instruction is working.

“People are going to start waking up and realize that what they do is not traditional but it’s theory,” Rojas said. “Those institutions want to tap into these resources and bring them into the fold. These are conversations that have been happening for at least a year now.”

Boot camp organizers said they not only see such programs as great supplements to educational systems for their students, but in some cases their curricula can help drive STEM instruction in the traditional classrooms.

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Baccus pointed to the Los Angeles Unified School District, which has been struggling to integrate emerging technology into its curriculum.

“I’ve worked at LAUSD for 17 years so I understand the challenge that some of our schools have in implementing innovative programs because everything is all-around taught to a test,” Baccus said.

Not discouraged, Baccus said he’s looking to spread his program into Inglewood and Compton to reach more students.

“In the future we want our students to be able to be problem solvers because that skill never grows old,” he said. “As technology advances, it just becomes an easier way to solve a problem and if you can, then you’ll always have a job. You don’t wait, you create your own opportunity.”

Baccus has talked to academics at traditional colleges who have requested his help trying to integrate structures like that of Limitless STEM Academy into their classroom. One philosophy the boot camps have integrated is the dedication to serving underrepresented communities, such as women, African American and Latino populations. They’re helping to facilitate the next generation of minority students entering the tech field.  

“[At Sabio] you have a Latino immigrant and Latina CEO coming out here and running things,” Rojas, who is a Colombian immigrant, said. “I don’t think you’re going to find something else like this.”

Rojas’ wife and Sabio co-founder, Liliana Monge, is Mexican and grew up in South Gate. Baccus also said he believed his students seeing other people of color working in tech encourage them to continue breaking into the ever-changing industry.

“The more qualifiers you have, the easier it is for minorities to sit at the table with people who may be unfortunately less qualified, but may have a network that allows them to get opportunities that we traditionally have been left out of, especially in STEM and technology and computers,” Baccus said. “Any more ammunition they get to put in their toolbox is absolutely great.”

Diversity, however, is not just essential in South Los Angeles. Diversifying the industry overall breeds better innovations in the field.

“Coding software development is supposed to be one of the leading innovative industries in the world – in the planet really, but by design for a bunch of different factors is the least innovative group out there,” Rojas said. “We don’t have enough women and people of color in the room to challenge the other folk in the room.”

Baccus hopes that the progress in terms diversity and technology will continue to take root, and eventually become a requirement for younger students.

“I would love to see [EQUIP] interfused with the curriculum for students even before high school to give them the skills they would need,” Baccus said. “Help them do that self-discovery before they get into those pathway programs.”


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