SOUTH BEND — In the pilot program of South Bend Code School, students who had zero coding experience built 23 web applications in five weeks to tackle real problems.
Since then, hundreds of students have learned to write computer code through the business, which has expanded to Fort Wayne and will soon be in Goshen.
South Bend Code School is growing and so is its recognition.
Alexandra Liggins and Alex Sejdinaj founded the school more than 2 years ago. The two discovered they, along with Chris Frederick, were trying to do the same thing — teach young people how to use computer languages to make the machines do cool things.
As a senior English major at the University of Notre Dame, Liggins discovered while tutoring high school students that many didn’t feel they had opportunities beyond high school. She knew coding was a skill that doesn’t require a college degree. So, “I started teaching myself to code,” she said.
Sejdinaj had grown up in the area, gotten a bachelor’s degree at Indiana University in recording arts and moved to Nashville, Tennessee. He fell into coding.
“I started to teach myself and couldn’t get enough of it,” he said.
He landed an information technology job at Notre Dame, but wanted to get more involved.
The two worked together at establishing the code school as a business. So far, 200 students have taken a full class and 700 more have participated in an educational activity.
“The most interesting thing to me is the confidence boost that seems to come,” said Sejdinaj.
In the field of tech, perhaps more than others, skill level and working hard opens doors, he said. Just under half of the code school students are female. Just over half are minorities.
This fall, 14 code school alums entered college at schools around Indiana, including Purdue University, Indiana University, Bethel College and Ivy Tech Community College. In the last year, 12 students got paid internships because of their tech skills. One of the young women got a job at a local tech company. She’s just 16.
Liggins is becoming a model for women in science, technology, engineering and math, but not just locally. In October, she went to Detroit to receive a national 2017 Women of Color STEM Award. The conference honored her for “corporate promotion of education.” She tied with NASA for the award. “It was a pretty incredible event,” she said.
A lot of programs expose young people to coding, but the boot camp approach makes it possible to hire them as interns after just 10 weeks, Liggins said. A summer program lasts a week and includes learning three coding languages and two websites.
College programs and year-long Google internships can teach coding, but South Bend Code School is trying to find the middle ground.
“How do you make coding for all?” Sejdinaj said.
The school teaches computer languages and concepts, but teachers urge students to code on what they’re passionate about. Liggins focuses on connecting young people, code and real-life applications.
As more students learn more skills, students or alums could take on projects for local nonprofits. Sejdinaj said they may partner with freelancers, but also don’t want to take work from them.
Aside from the code school, which is a startup tech business in its own right, Sejdinaj and Frederick are working to establish GiveGrove.com, a platform for nonprofits to use for fundraising events.
Word is getting out about the school. They’re fielding phone calls from around the country about their approach and potential expansion.
“We hope to continue expanding,” she said.
A new course on 3-D gaming development will start soon in South Bend. Classes could start in the spring in Goshen if the right partnerships with educational players come together, said Liggins.
“We’re looking at what the best fit will be to bring coding programs to Goshen,” she said.
Liggins and others involved with the code school are part of the movement locally to grow and develop talent and find ways for it to take root here. Everyone agrees that tech training is important for employees or potential employees. The code school is providing practical skills that nearly every employer now needs to build and maintain an outward facing website or internal systems. There are other skills young people need to get jobs, but teaching them to code can only help them and the community.
“When you teach code," Sejdinaj said, "people will come to you to use tech to solve problems."