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PvE Portland

Back in early 2014, I created a short lived website covering all things nerdy in and around Portland. While PVE Portland is now a thing of the past, the posts are preserved here.

{LOG} Camp - Coding The Future

A group of talented, young web developers invited me to stop by and check out their latest projects. I meandered around the room of coders busily typing away and a peculiar image on a screen caught my attention.

“It's Megalodon,” the coder informed me. “He's a giant shark. I'm really into Megalodon right now, that's what my whole website is about. I really like Pokemon too, but... sorry, I just have to do this...”

She leans forward to continue writing script and a photo of “Megalodon” appears at the top corner of her website. I don't have the heart to tell her that the photo is actually a poorly Photoshoped image of a great white shark. 

Why ruin her dream? After all, she's only nine years old.

The coders here are children in grades three through eight at Harrison Park School. They are here, in a cramped, window-less computer lab on a Tuesday afternoon, to participate in Log Camp, a nonprofit after-school program designed to teach computer skills to low-income youth and youth of color.

Harrison Park School has the highest poverty rate in the Portland Public School system. 86% of its students are on the free or reduced lunch program. I take for granted that I have a computer at home with a working internet connection –  many of the students here do not.

A tiny fourth grader tells me he started coming to Log Camp because he thought it would teach him how to fix his family's computer. Now he is learning HTML and CSS, and working on an idea for an app that can translate “girl talk” into “boy talk.”

“I never thought I could do something like make a website,” he says, “but maybe now I could do this for money, and then I could even buy my family a new computer.”

As I look around the room, I realize, Log Camp is doing more than teaching code to these students – it is changing their lives.

Log Camp is the brainchild of Robert Raleigh, who seems to be one of those rare, genuinely good people driven to help others. His earnest desire to make a difference persuaded Crystal Wiese and Stephen Hodges to help him bring his grand idea to life. The three of them do everything, from teaching, to maintaining the school's limited technology, to ensuring the students eat the free snack provided by the after-school program (which, today, is a sad patty of mystery meat on a white bun).

“I promised to help Robert for one month – that was over a year ago,” says Crystal. She is now the program's volunteer and site coordinator, and today she is teaching basic formatting to the kids.

She asks one of the students to come to the front and finish a line of script for font styles. The young girl confidently writes {font-style:italic} as I watch from the back with Steve.

Steve develops the program's curriculum, with a focus on creating out of the box solutions that anyone can teach. This way even teachers unfamiliar with code can successfully run a Log Camp program at their school.

“I know first hand how having a marketable skill can make a difference,” says Steve, who taught himself code and now runs his own web application business.

The students are taught from the program's custom curriculum and practice on free code education websites like Code Academy and Play My Code.

Log Camp was founded in April 2013 and launched a four-week pilot program in May, teaching code to 21 students. By the end of their first year, Robert, Crystal and Steve had provided 112 hours of free technical education to 73 children.

The program is run entirely by volunteers and funded by whatever grants and donations they receive. Because of the nature of the schools they teach at, the staff is constantly facing problems with a lack of technology. Just last week, they put out a plea for help after discovering all the computers at their summer program location had been unexpectedly removed. If that wasn't enough, the school's only technology teacher was laid off due to budget cuts.

Technology inequality in low-income areas is an on-going problem, but the long-term impacts are growing as more and more employers expect computer skills for even the most entry level jobs. 

Children attending public schools in Portland's lower income areas have limited access to technology, which is why a program like Log Camp is so important.

Crystal directs my attention to two boys quietly working on websites. They are brothers from an impoverished family with five children. The older brother participated in an earlier Log Camp program and encouraged his younger brother to join him for this one. 

“I like it here,” the older brother tells me. “I get to listen to music and use the computer. I never thought I'd like coding – it seemed boring – but CSS is easy for me. I want to study art or product design, maybe design my own skateboards; knowing how to make websites will probably help me do that.”

He leans over to help his brother complete a line of code.

Crystal believes the skills the kids are learning (and passing on to their siblings) can help pull entire families out from poverty. They are shown real options for their future and given a skill that doesn't require a costly college degree.

"After school programs are great, but [...] they aren't giving students hard skills. They're not changing their economic futures,” says Crystal. “We are giving these kids real skills they can use, skills that can possibly change their lives."

The tech sector in the US is overwhelmingly devoid of diversity. Google and Yahoo just released their staff demographics, and their companies continue to be dominated by white males.

"We want to see a more diverse population in the tech industries,” says Steve, “that's why we try to build our program to attract students from all walks of life and backgrounds. We take everyone as they come."

In 2013, 59% of Log Camp's students were were minorities and 56% were female.

I notice two girls learning Javascript and Ruby via the Treehouse Program. They are building dueling websites about the young adult book series Warrior Cats - one mocks the book series by depicting the characters with LOLcat images, the other, titled "The Real Warrior Cats," defends the series.

I ask them if they thought computer coding was more for boys before coming to Log Camp.

“What do you mean?” one of them asks. “Girls can do this stuff, we can even do it better.”

The folks at Log Camp have big plans for the future. They want to expand their program to more schools, provide better technology, create high school programs, and partner with professional programs like Epicodus to create a pipeline that carries their graduates into the tech industry. They also like to give students who complete their programs a kind of certification they can show to potential employers.

All of this takes time and money – Log Camp is always looking for more volunteers – you don't even need to know code. And they gladly accept donations, including new or slightly used laptops (with a Windows 7 or 8 operating system or any Apple OSX laptop purchased in 2011 or later).

Sometimes it is hard to see how a nonprofit or charity is making the world a better place, but with Log Camp, it is obvious. You can watch the kids mastering a real skill, building confidence in themselves, and creating a life where their determination and abilities – not their poverty – determines their future.

To learn more about Log Camp, check out their website HERE !