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ABQ startup launches free coding summer camps


Jonathan Sicaju, 16, listens to instructions during the first day of camp at a coding boot camp launched by Cultivating Coders at El Camino Real Academy in Albuquerque. The company also has camps this summer at schools in Espanola and Shiprock. Roberto E. Rosales/Albuquerque Journal

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Dozens of high school students are attending crash courses in computer coding for free this summer in Albuquerque, Shiprock and Espanola.

Albuquerque startup Cultivating Coders launched three separate programs on Monday for 57 students from high schools in various underserved communities, offering participants intensive training in web and software development. That includes 21 students from high schools in Albuquerque, 24 Navajo youth in Shiprock, and 12 students at Northern New Mexico College in Espanola.

The boot camps mark the start of a new, long-term project by Cultivating Coders, which launched in December 2015 to offer eight-week training courses in computer programming for adults through mobile classes taught directly in under-served rural and urban areas. The company continues to grow its fee-based program here and elsewhere, with new boot camps planned for California and Washington.

But last year, the startup formed a nonprofit to offer under-served high school youth free training that can guide them into high-paying career opportunities, said Cultivating Coders founder and President Charles Ashley III. The project emerged from a boot camp for students in Shiprock last year.

“We found high school kids really excel at this,” Ashely said. “They pick it up fast, so a light bulb went off for us. We decided a nonprofit program would be particularly impactful for high school students.”

The company raised hundreds of thousands of dollars from different companies and organizations for the camps, including a $300,000 donation from Microsoft YouthSpark. Assistance also came from the LANL and Albuquerque Community Foundations, Teach for America, the Air Force Research Laboratory, AT&T and Albuquerque Public Schools’ Career Enrichment Center.

“We’re really impressed with what they’re doing,” said Terri Nikole Baca, AT&T’s New Mexico director of external affairs. “It’s aligned with AT&T’s mission to support high school graduation and STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.”

The LANL Foundation aims to build a local summer STEM “ecosystem” in partnership with Northern NM College, which is offering a STEM program for high school students alongside the coding camp this summer with money from the National Science Foundation.

“We’re leveraging both programs together,” said LANL K-12 program director Gwen Perez Warniment.

As students learn to code in the camps, they’ll work on community projects to build public websites, which they’ll present at a “demo day” when classes conclude. Camp graduates will then build after-school coding clubs in their own schools for peers. And all summer graduates will receive free laptops.

The skills learned in the camps may be as important as reading, writing and math in today’s world, said Brandon Trebitowski, founder and CEO of the Rio Rancho-based coding company Pixegon, who recently joined Cultivating Coders as chief technology officer.

For Albuquerque boot camp participant Ambrosia Wilson, 15, the class is a step toward her goalĀ  of becoming a computer programmer. “It’s a great start,” she said.

Fifteen-year-old Mekhi Majedi, another Albuquerque participant, said coding is everybody.

“It doesn’t turn a blind eye to race or color,” Majedi said. “Anyone can do it. You just have to find the will.”

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