The code to advancing technology training

Through its sponsorship of the Gaming Center at the new Cloud901 Teen Learning Lab at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and support of CODECREW, the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation is at the forefront of teaching coding and computer sciences skills to community youth.
 Sometimes, the best way to see big ideas come to fruition is through relationships.
Memphis basketball great Elliot Perry and Meka Egwuekwe serve together on the National Civil Rights Museum board of directors. Egwuekwe is the senior software architect and director of development at Lokion Interactive and has played a prominent role in the expansion of coding education for Memphis youth.
Perry expressed interest in Egwuekwe’s passion to spread coding and computer science education to more of the city. And as chairman of the board of the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation, Perry was part of an organization that separately had an interest in spreading the coding gospel.
What came out of those discussions and mutual interest was the formation of CODECREW by Egwuekwe and partners Audrey Jones and Petya Grady. The new nonprofit organization started last year in part to further the Grizzlies Foundation’s work in the Binghampton community, specifically at Lester Community Center.
“There are so many exciting career paths available in digital technologies – coding, game design, software design – we want to make sure young people in Memphis have the skills to take advantage of those opportunities but also, relationships with people in the field to help guide and inspire them,” said Diane Terrell, Executive Director of the Grizzlies Foundation, on why the organization became involved in CODECREW.
Beyond its support of the Grizzlies Foundation’s efforts, CODECREW looks to become the premier organization working to present coding and computer science career opportunities to the city’s youth. But it all had its start with funding from the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation.
CODECREW organized in April 2015, went through a Start Co. accelerator in May and also held a one-day workshop that month as a recruitment mechanism. That summer came the six-week Grizzlies Code Camp, a tech mentoring program.
 Students at Grizzlies Code Camp work to build their own apps
The idea of mentorship is at the heart of the Grizzlies Foundation; the investments the organization make are focused on mentorship. Building healthy relationships with adults increases the likelihood the youth stay around the community as they get older.
“We ran the Grizzlies Code Camp as a tech mentoring program and were very focused on a high ratio of adults to kids,” Egwuekwe said. “We make sure adults are engaged with kids and the adults know the kids’ names. Those are important factors so they not only learn about coding but are more likely to stick with coding and computer science because of relationships with adults.”
CODECREW works to reverse the trend of the widening digital skills gap in Memphis by providing in-depth computer science training to children; serving as a resource for parents, educators and other organizations looking to address the digital skills gap; and raise awareness about the importance of diversity in tech and the role of computer science training in lifting prosperity in the city.
That last point is significant to Egwuekwe who said he is focused on showing a greater percentage of the Memphis population that coding training often leads to higher paying jobs.
The Grizzlies Foundation supported CODECREW in its effort to convert the summer camp into an after-school program, which has operated at Lester Community Center since the fall. The Grizzlies Collaborative Learning Lab is another tool in the foundation’s arsenal to raise up the city’s youth, right from a central location in Binghampton.
The lab is an interactive environment that uses the latest technology tools for students to improve personal academic performance. At the lab, Lester Prep, Peer Power Foundation, CODECREW and Start Co. work together to provide after-school tutoring and enrichment workshops to children in the neighborhood.
Lester works well because “it’s not only centrally located in the city, it’s a neighborhood in need and has produced quite a few basketball greats,” Egwuekwe said, adding that the Grizzlies Foundation’s investments in Lester Prep makes for a natural connection. “It made sense synergistically, comprehensively and holistically to be involved. There are many touch points with many of the same kids. For them, the next step beyond basketball is the digital lab. It’s a good comprehensive approach to their mentoring model to make sure more kids stay on the right path.”
A big part of the coding educational experience comes at the Benjamin L. Hooks Central Library and the new Cloud901 Teen Learning Lab. The Gaming Zone is sponsored by the Memphis Grizzlies Foundation. It is an opportunity for teens to use technology in a way to better take advantage of the center’s offerings.
Diane Jalfon, Executive Director of the Memphis Library Foundation, said the Grizzlies Foundation was bought in quickly on the idea of interactive educational opportunities at Cloud901, with a gravitation to the gaming zone because of a connection for the NBA franchise to the concept of gaming.
“But the Gaming Zone is so much more than just a place to play games,” Jalfon said. “The emphasis is on creating content rather than consuming it. What we’re doing is sparking 21st century development through gaming. Game design is where so many of these processes intersect. To bring a game to life you need coding, graphics and audio and we have all of these things at Cloud901.”
Cloud901 was happening independently from CODECREW’s work, but the library’s use of technology made for a natural connection. While the library had staff members focused on audio, video and gaming components, there wasn’t a focus on coding. CODECREW’s partnership allowed it also to expand beyond its work with middle school students into high school.
“We envision long term being K through 12, and this allows (the library) to bring people in who are used to working with kids in the coding space,” Egwuekwe said. “It makes Cloud901 a fully comprehensive place for teens.”
In a sense, Cloud901 works as the incubator where teens use provided laptops, headphones, microphones and other tools to create projects of interest. It’s a look at what libraries will look like 20 years from now, Jalfon said. And the Memphis library system and Grizzlies Foundation are playing a part in forging that path.
“The Grizzlies are a wonderful organization to be associated with, whether talking about kids or adults,” Jalfon said. “I think what Diane and the foundation bring is an interest in helping make Cloud901 into a national model. She has always seen beyond just Memphis and wanting to raise up these organizations so they serve as a model.”
CODECREW is looking to build on the success of its first Grizzlies Digital Coding Camp that was held last summer. Developed for students in the sixth through eighth grades, the CODECREW camp is taught by local tech professionals in an effort to expose participants to the possibilities of a career in computer sciences.
This summer will see the camp grow to two offerings, one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and the other on Tuesday and Thursday. The camps will be held at Lester Community Center June 13 through July 22.
Expanding into multiple camps is just the start of what CODECREW’s ultimate vision for growth is, which is to move the needle in respect to tech education and Memphis youth choosing the field for a career.
“The digital divide in Memphis is greater than probably any other city,” Egwuekwe said. “One of the things we have to do to get Memphis more prosperous is you look at these other cities and they have vibrant tech scenes. They have large populations of white and Asian males flocking to these cities and great pipelines to develop that. In Memphis our largest demographic is African-American females. If we ignore moving more of those kids into these fields we can never expect to achieve that prosperity Memphis deserves.”
CODECREW is open to all children, but there is a particular focus on African-American and Latino girls, an under-represented population in the tech field. How will CODECREW accomplish that?
Well, it starts small, with the Grizz camps, for example. As more children learn coding at the camps, it naturally expands the number of the city’s youth that is exposed to computer science. Beyond that is what Egwuekwe calls the “teach the teacher” model, that will in essence see thousands of the community’s youth taught coding and computer science.
Part of the method to teach teachers comes in what’s offered at Cloud901. The demos provided also include kits for teachers. Beyond Cloud901, the long-term goal is to train cohorts of teachers in a structured context that can be used in public and private schools in the community.
“As we scale in the number of programs in that regard and teaching those teachers so they can become our indirect evangelists so we can share that narrative,” Egwuekwe said. “If we’re successful, I think we’ll be the model across the country.”
Egwuekwe said he wants to see a youth tech culture of producers in Memphis built to the point that the stereotypes of it being only for white and Asian males no longer exist.
“We want kids to be tech producers, not just tech consumers,” Egwuekwe said. “Too many times they only see that for white and Asian males. We want to show them it’s not rocket science. We believe we can begin to make a dent in our city’s high poverty rate. They’ll no longer be hindered by a lack of access.”
Erasing stereotypes while showing the city’s youth the possibilities that exist is an important part of CODECREW’s mission, especially showing a well-paying career path other than being an athlete or entertainer.
“In this city too many African-American young people have limited thoughts of what they can become,” Egwuekwe said. “We want kids to see there is even more they can do that is a great career path that’s also lucrative. None of those things are mutually exclusive. If not for kids dribbling basketballs there is no NBA and no NBA team in Memphis. And not for kids dribbling basketballs who grow up to be players at FedExForum there would be no CODECREW in Memphis. … The stereotype about dribbling basketballs is making coders today.”

Read more articles by Lance Wiedower.

Lance is a veteran journalist with more than 16 years of experience in newsrooms in the Memphis area as a reporter and editor, including most recently as managing editor of The Daily News. He regularly contributes to The Daily News, including a biweekly travel column, The Daily Traveler. 
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