Blake's Brainiacs: Middle schoolers learn to build apps at free, all-girl coding camp on South Side

STEM center at Palo Alto College hosts Youth Code Jam's She Code Connect classes

By Diana Winters - Executive Producer, SA Live

SAN ANTONIO - What is JavaScript? How do you build an app? KSAT Meteorologist Kaiti Blake visited an all-girl group of middle school students at Palo Alto College who learned about both of those things this week at the She Code Connect app development camp.

The camp was one of four free summer camp sessions hosted by Youth Code Jam in the school's new Science, Technology, Engineering and Math. or STEM, Center.

"They can get a taste of what STEM is," said Erron Gonzalez, academic program coordinator at Palo Alto College.

Gonzalez said most of the girls attend schools on the South Side, near the college. She said many had no interest in STEM and some had never even heard of computer science before they attended camp.

"Their excitement about science in general has changed 100 percent," Gonzalez said. "By the end of the two weeks that we see them, or the week, they have completely just started talking about, 'Well, I want to do this in science,' 'I want to be a chemist,' or 'I want to be a biologist.'"

Funding for the free camps was provided by a five-year $3 million grant from the Texas Workforce Commission. And this year, the camps were more popular than ever.

"Last year, we only had 150 show up. This year, we doubled that by having over 300," Gonzalez said.

During the four sessions this summer, students learned about computer science through real-world projects, utilizing art, storytelling, robotics, website design, game design and app design. They also heard from inspirational guest speakers — women who work in the tech industry.

"They can learn how to code. They can get jobs in this career field, and I feel like it's really important for them to get guidance, especially from girls, so that they know that we can do it too," Valeria Munoz Gonzales said.

Munoz Gonzales is a tech with Youth Code Jam who recently graduated from high school. She taught all four sessions of She Code Connect this summer. She said she was the only girl in her high school computer science class, and she's excited to be able to help girls cultivate a love for STEM.

"It gives them this initiative to take charge of their own education and realize that they have the potential to learn what boys are learning," Munoz Gonzales said.

That knowledge can be lucrative -- not just in the career world, but for their education. The top five students from each camp session will be awarded scholarships to future Youth Code Jam coding camps, and their projects will be showcased in the Palo Alto College STEM Center and on the Youth Code Jam website.

For their projects in the app development session, the girls learned how to design and code customized, mobile game apps.

"They're doing, like, a Whack-Emoji. So it's like Whack-a-Mole, but it's something they can play on their phone," Munoz Gonzales said.

The apps allow users to click on emojis that pop up in various squares on their smartphone screens and earn points.

"It was really fun because you have to make the emoji move around. I still haven't figured out how to do that correctly yet, but I'm hoping soon I will," said Jacalyn Jehle, a 12-year-old camper and she-coder.

She Code Connect camps will be offered again next summer at Palo Alto College. STEM Center staff members are still trying to work out their schedules for fall, but community members are welcome to check out the facility in the meantime.

"They're able to get advising, tutoring. They can do group projects with their faculty member," Gonzalez said. "It's really a collaborative space between faculty, staff and, of course, students."

In addition to study space, the STEM Center provides interactive screens and laptops for checkout, use of STEM materials such as textbooks, models, microscopes and samples and flex space for programming opportunities with workshops and guest speakers.

If you would like to study at the Palo Alto College STEM Center, visit the college's website or call Gonzalez at 210-486-3945.

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