Bringing silicon valley closer to under equipped bay area schools
Just wanted to update this forum about a cause we are working on through our organization (http://www.redbasin.org).
The mission is to bring the tech education to the school children who have pretty much been counted out of the silicon valley race for excellence. I am specifically talking about East Side Union High School District (ESUHSD), where people from our organization are volunteering our time to bring new hope to students who can learn CS and seek internships and college admissions.
We are using open source software to educate the students. All education is classroom based. The primary goal is to motivate these children. While there is already an online education boom, we observed that certain children are left out, as they are not motivated enough to take advantage of this boom. What they need is more person-to-person interaction in a real classroom. This also makes them aware of the community as students learn together in a classroom, and can share their motivations among others. So they have this feeling that they are not alone in this world. (This is usually not a problem with motivated students in more equipped schools).
We started this as a free after-school program about 1 year ago, and building class size has been a challenge ever since. As the school does not have many resources, we, as volunteers spend a greater part of our time working and trouble-shooting things like classroom projectors, computers, internet, and printers. To begin with, the students are expected to have no background in CS, as they have never taken any other coaching previously. Some of these are senior students who will graduate out this year, and would potentially have no CS coaching, if we didn't give them an opportunity. So this is where the tech coaching class helps them. Typically students from affluent neighborhoods in better school districts take expensive computer science training that are generally 2 week crash courses, or summer camps. And these usually cost $500+. So these students have pretty much ruled out any such opportunities. (Besides, I don't personally believe anyone can learn CS in 2 months, leave alone 2 weeks). If the other subjects like Physics, Math are full year (5 day a week) academic programs, why not have CS taught all year round? Now the answer is that certain schools in more fortunate school districts already have started such CS programs, as they have received funding from the CA Board of Education. This is usually based on overall school performance. They even have AP Computer Science programs. It turns out that many years ago, when the economy was not doing so well, as lot of schools (such as the one we are volunteering in) pretty much dropped out of the radar when it came to any sort of state or federal funding. Ever since then, there seems to be no easy way to get these programs back into the school. In the meanwhile, we have about 10 batches (academic years) of students graduating from such schools without any CS background, and they seem to have no prospect of finding jobs in the silicon valley in the field of CS (which seems to be the majority of opportunity). Rather than working in tech jobs, they would end up working in malls, salons, and other blue collar professions.
One thing I observed about many of these students, is that the good students from these schools are no different from the good students from other schools which are considered better. So the aptitude is not an issue. The big issue is the lack of available opportunity. So that's where the role of our organization Redbasin.org comes in. We decided that we could turn this around in a few years, by picking a small section of the school district and making our ideas work. Will providing better opportunity produce better results? We think it would. We are already seeing that the students are feeling more confident and have started dreaming about a different future for themselves.
During the year, we spent a large part of time teaching them the theory of computer science. Since the internet is not working about 90% of the time, this was a challenge to teach them, so we had to resort to paper based handouts. Even the library computers were difficult to use, since they are not allowed to use the disc drive to store anything. So installing things like Firefox or Chrome on the computer was not possible. We had to take the help of the administrator, but even the administrator was not able to de-freeze the computers. The de-freeze would have allowed us to install software like Netbeans, Java, Spring and more. So we are still working on that issue. They have done this obviously for computer security issues, due to the school district policy, and they are justified related to that. However, the problem is simply the lack of available resources from the IT administrator to trouble-shoot various issues such as de-freeze.
So while the library computer issue was being resolved, and was taking very long, we decided to focus back our attention on the theory of CS. It was however getting increasingly difficult to keep the students motivated without giving them hands-on training on actual computers. So then we decided to scrounge some old laptops from our homes and started installing linux on them. The plan was to have the students use these laptops to learn this. We were able to do this for a few classes.
In the meantime, we were able to figure out using a cloud-based IDE (instead of NetBeans), which was capable of committing code to github. This looked promising, except the cloud-based IDE had limitations and bugs. Also, the library computers had issues with redirects/certificates that the cloud-based IDE required, and we were frequently battling those issues.
We are now at the point where we can teach them developing web-applications, and that's where Spring comes in. We, at Redbasin.org have been using Spring for many years, so this would be logical to introduce it here. Redbasin.org has a github project for this here (https://github.com/redbasin/redbasin-org). We are using some reference code base here and have decided to make it available as an open source license to the school. This software is being used by other companies and government space organizations. So it's well tested and also a nice way for students to get a comprehensive understanding of how web applications can be developed. We also have many other Spring projects developed, that are not yet on github.
The idea is to have students be comfortable with CS concepts, java programming and Spring based development in the next 2 years. We are now actively seeking donations of used laptops from large organizations. Our plan is to install linux on them, as it's then easier to teach them the theory of CS on linux laptops at a much lower cost. We will be creating a data center (private cloud) in the school, which will be separate from the library computers, so that the students have guaranteed access to these computers. This process will not be instantaneous but will evolve over the next 2 years.
We are depending upon receiving donations from local bay area companies to make this happen. It would be nice to have used laptops (with or without linux) and/or cash donations which can be used towards meeting costs of buying computer equipment, setting up data center and internet connection.
We are thankful that VMWare has supported our effort by donating t-shirts. We are planning on using these t-shirts to motivate students to attend the CS coaching classes. We have been giving them various incentives over the year from time to time, to make sure they are in class after school, rather than hanging out and wasting their valuable times. However, it is indeed a challenge, as it requires continuous monitoring. We also need to head back to various teachers' classrooms from time to time and remind them to attend the classes.
We believe that with enough foundation in CS, the students will be in a better shape to learn Spring and other open source technologies, which will make them career-ready. To date, we have spent about 500 hours over the last year, and it's only a drop in the bucket towards uplifting a forgotten bay area school.
Foundation for Competitive Education