Teaching Kids to Code During the Summer—for $1,000 a Week

Are private summer camps exacerbating tech's diversity problem?

Evgenii Bobrov / Vovan / Shutterstock / Jack Hollingsworth / Getty / Arsh Raziuddin / The Atlantic

On a humid morning in June, classrooms along a third-floor corridor in a New York University building hummed with high-pitched chatter. The space serves as the hub for summer programs in computer science run by the California-based company iD Tech Camps. In one room, a group of children, ages seven to nine, knelt on the carpet next to small white robots, which they were learning to program with handheld tablets. Nearby, other kids worked on laptops, recording YouTube videos or designing video games. Down the hall, a group of teenagers jotted notes as an instructor diagrammed a linear-regression algorithm on a whiteboard. While some planned to return the following week, several told me they were squeezing in a few days of programming instruction before heading off to sleepaway camp or on family vacations.

Kids don’t learn much coding in school, which can leave them unprepared to tackle computer science in college or in a career. There are more than 540,000 open computing jobs, yet fewer than 50,000 computer-science majors graduated into the workforce last year, according to Code.org, a nonprofit that seeks to expand computer-science instruction in schools. Summer camps like iD Tech are stepping in to fill the gap, positioning themselves as a potential entry point to a career in tech down the road. iD Tech, which operates on more than a hundred campuses in the United States and abroad, has established itself—along with competitors like Digital Media Academy—as a dominant player in the niche market of summer tech programs for children and adolescents. More than 50,000 students plan to attend its camps this summer. At roughly $1,000 a week, though, these programs remain out of reach for many families, raising questions about how for-profit enrichment programs might shape access to tech education for a generation of young people—and whether they perpetuate patterns that exclude underrepresented candidates.

While many classmates at her New York City private school spend the summer at sleepaway camp, Brie Friedman, 15 years old, told me that she would rather learn to encrypt a file or dismantle a computer’s hardware to peek inside. So for the past six summers, she’s attended iD Tech’s NYU program to build on her interests in math, science, and tech. Friedman, who wore a charcoal-colored hoodie that morning, told me that last summer, she modeled a white miniature computer and used the camp’s 3D printer to create a physical version that now lives on her desk at home. This summer, she’s enrolled in the full seven weeks of iD Tech programs on offer.

Friedman’s mother, Wendi Friedman Tush, who runs a New York branding consultancy, acknowledged that the camp is expensive, but says she found it comparable to some other summer options like sleepaway camp. She credits iD Tech with helping her daughter, who is dyslexic, channel what had been an early interest in playing video games into an aptitude and passion for computer science. “It’s given her a whole new set of skills,” she says.

Pete Ingram-Cauchi, iD Tech’s CEO, says that the summer programs help ignite early interest in children who might one day go on to consider a career in STEM. “We’re trying to create the next generation in the pipeline of these tech-savvy kids,” he says.

That pipeline, though, has traditionally been leaky for low-income students. In general, the weeks of summer break between school years tend to exacerbate achievement gaps between students from affluent and poor families. While students across the board lose about a month’s worth of the previous year’s lessons, students from lower-income families tend to slip further than their wealthier classmates, who are more likely to attend enrichment programs or benefit from more frequent adult supervision. While there are plenty of free online coding classes, in-person programs aren’t as accessible: Free and low-cost coding camps run by nonprofits like Girls Who Code and Kode With Klossy tend to be reserved for girls, and are often oversubscribed.

In the absence of widespread coding instruction in schools, some educators and activists are expressing concerns about a system where expensive summer programs, available to the privileged few, serve as on-ramps to early computer-science proficiency, and ultimately, technology jobs. That prospect is particularly worrisome in a sector where women and some minorities have been underrepresented. Women make up 24 percent of people in computing occupations, according to an analysis of 2017 data from Code.org. About 8 percent of computing employees are black, and 7 percent are Hispanic.

“At a time when Americans worry about opportunity and the ‘American Dream,’ there is no better equalizer than computer science,” Hadi Partovi, the CEO of Code.org, says. “The idea that it would be limited to elite summer camps is just un-American.”

Of course, paid summer camps are part of an American tradition stretching back more than a century. Ingram-Cauchi says factors like employing one staffer for every eight campers, offering intensive employee training, and letting students use top-of-the-line laptops drive up iD Tech’s operating costs. “It’s tricky, because we would love to be able to say, ‘Every single kid can come to one of our camps,’’’ he says. “We want to be able to provide the absolute best STEM experience on the planet for our kids, but that means it’s not inexpensive.”

He says the company is working to significantly expand access to its summer programs to families who can’t afford the price. Since its founding in 1999 through last year, the company provided about $3 million in tuition help. This year, Ingram-Cauchi says, it plans to provide nearly $1 million in need-based scholarships and tuition assistance, including tuition aid of about $740,000 already granted to around 880 campers. iD Tech also runs some free weeklong camps called “outreach weeks” in partnership with nonprofits for students from low-income families. This year, they will operate at five of its roughly 150 locations.

iD Tech doesn’t track campers by socioeconomic status or race. Ingram-Cauchi believes the STEM-pipeline issue iD Tech is best positioned to address is that of gender imbalance. In 2014, the company launched a specialized girls-only program called “Alexa Café” to recruit more female campers, with the goal of achieving gender parity across its camp programs. Since then, the share of girl campers has risen from 12 percent to 28 percent, he says.

Yet steps towards gender parity in tech too often leave behind girls of color and girls from low-income families, says Tarika Barrett, the chief operating officer at Girls Who Code. The organization offers free after-school and summer coding programs and recruits girls primarily from underserved communities. About half of the girls in its free seven-week summer-immersion program are black, Latina, or eligible for free or reduced-price lunches, she says. Since its launch in 2012, almost 90,000 girls have participated in its programs. Most of them, Barrett says, had no—or very little—prior experience with computer science. “The exposure they gain is often the moment where they think to themselves for the first time, ‘Oh, I could see myself as a computer scientist,’” she says.

Extracurricular enrichment is only part of the picture. Code.org’s Partovi is among those calling for more computer-science instruction in schools, arguing that basic computer-science literacy has become fundamental to a well-rounded education and preparedness for the workforce. Thirteen states mandate that high schools offer computer-science courses, according to Code.org. Just five states require courses starting in elementary school. Among principals at K-12 schools, 40 percent reported that their school offered at least one computer science class where students could learn programming or coding, according to a 2016 survey commissioned by Google and conducted by Gallup.

That’s still a long way from incorporating computer science as a basic element of the educational experience. Code.org, Girls Who Code, and other organizations are working to train more teachers in computer science so that they can bring tech instruction into the classroom. Code.org, which is funded in part by tech firms including Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook, runs teacher-training programs. After attending, elementary-school teachers typically incorporate about an hour of computer science classes into their weekly curriculum for 10 to 15 weeks; middle- and high-school teachers finish the training equipped to teach year-long courses. Since the programs’ launch in 2014, roughly 75,000 teachers have attended. Code.org has also made policy proposals at the federal and state levels suggesting, for example, that schools be required to eventually offer computer science, and allow computer science to satisfy a core graduation requirement. Since January, 25 states have passed new laws or initiatives that support the expansion of computer science in schools.

“Everybody learns in school how a light bulb works, how the digestive system works, how photosynthesis works,” Partovi says. As computing reshapes virtually every industry, all students should also be learning how technology works. “These aren’t things that we want only the elites to know.”