An abundance of students rush into Digital Pioneers Academy wearing hunter green polos. They all grab a seat and prepare for their first class of the day: robotics.
Digital Pioneers Academy recently opened its doors in the fall of 2018, becoming the first computer-science-focused middle school in Washington, D.C. Its mission is to develop the next generation of innovators.
It prepares students to meet or exceed the highest academic standards while cultivating the strength of character necessary to both graduate from four-year colleges and thrive in 21st-century careers. Through core classes and personalized, project-based work, students will develop computational thinking skills, a set of capabilities that can be flexibly applied to succeed in a four-year college and in a variety of fields.
Lena Horne is a poised 11-year-old attending DPA. She is currently in the 6th grade and talks about learning how to code at such an early age. Her parents chose this school because of Horne’s dream of being a computer scientist.
“I fell in love with computer science in the third grade when I was taking a class called media; I was fascinated by computers,” says Horne.
Between 2017 and 2027, the number of STEM jobs will grow 13 percent, compared to 9 percent for non-STEM jobs. The number of STEM jobs is set to increase, but there is still of lack of gender and racial diversity in tech.
Pew Research Center reported that blacks are underrepresented in the STEM workforce. 9% of black people have jobs in the STEM field.
A 2016 Gallup report found that 40% of American schools now offer coding classes. A school with a demographic of 75% to 100% underrepresented minority students only 27% had access to computer-science courses.
DPA emphasizes the importance of STEM courses. Special assistant to the CEO, Alexis Brown said, “we want to give our scholars early access and exposure to both soft and hard skills through computer science, coding, and computational thinking.”
Founder and principal, Mashea Ashton said, “Not only are our students staying active and engaged, but they’re also learning how to accomplish tasks, and complete projects in a group and they’re having fun doing it.”
DPA not only teach computer science courses, but it teaches students about the powerful impact that technology has on the world.
“Technology is important because technology fills in a lot of gaps of problems that are in the world,” says Horne.
Brown said, “to ensure the success of students, they have to have opportunities and options. We knew that computer science is the language of the future. We want our scholars to not only consume it but to actually create it.”
Horne said, “we get to learn how to code games and websites at a really young age, and DPA makes it easier, and it’s actually fun. I get to be creative in the class, and I get to think of my own things, and it creates a world for me.”
Computer science professor at St. Augustine’s University, Dr. Sarah Reives said, “Sometimes computer science is pushed aside. Not because it isn’t valued, but he uses there are very few people who can provide instruction in the area.”
“STEM provides a practical application for reading and math content that is relevant and often more interesting for students to learn. Given the technology that children will be faced to handle in their adult job placements, they need to be comfortable with the technology and understand how to use it as early as possible,” says Reives.
At DPA, students gain different skills they can use to secure high paying jobs in the future which include building a working knowledge of the technological world and expanding social-emotional skills.
Ashton said, “tomorrow’s workers will balance technical knowledge with social skills. In the new digital workplace, it’s crucial to understand people and tech.”
Although DPA is moving in a positive direction, the amount of African-Americans in STEM is not. DPA is committed to serving children that are often forgotten; DPA is made up of 98% of African-Americans. DPA provides the resources and support to Ward 7 and 8 students that generally would not have these opportunities.
Faith Johnson, 12, is a student at DPA and she is excited to be in a classroom full of black students learning about computer science.
“A lot of African-Americans, African-American women especially do not really get the chance to go to a school like this one. But we were chosen to be here; that is important,” says Johnson.
“Schools with high populations of minority and underrepresented people of color are still not getting access and opportunity. I know that while the numbers are changing rapidly from when I was in middle and high school, it’s still not enough,” says Brown.
“An after-school club provides great exposure, but a club may only meet once a week and potentially only for an hour. Our scholars are really digging into computer science every day,” says Brown.