In an effort to better prepare students for careers in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM), Chicago has launched a pilot program that will offer Web development courses at local high schools and city colleges.

Chicago Public Schools, the City Colleges of Chicago and local startup The Starter League will work together on the pilot, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced on Monday, Jan. 28. The Starter League — formerly called Code Academy — teaches beginners how to code, design and ship Web applications.

The league will craft a training program for educators, and work with the schools and colleges to design Web development courses for students. This summer, 10 teachers from Chicago Public Schools and six from the City Colleges of Chicago will go through training.

In fall 2013, these teachers will then lead Web development courses for students at five Early College STEM high schools, the Technology Magnet Cluster high schools and the City Colleges.

Through this pilot, the city hopes to spark student excitement about learning, introduce them to a new career path, and expose them to a new class, said Beth Swanson, deputy chief of staff for education at the mayor's office.

On a more personal level, Swanson's nine-year-old daughter has been taking a technology class on Saturday mornings through Northwestern University's Center for Talent Development -- and she gets excited about coding, animating and designing for two and a half hours on the weekend.

This excitement shows that students do engage with technology in a way that maybe doesn't happen in every school and classroom, and Swanson said she hopes to see that kind of engagement spread throughout the city's school system. "We need to facilitate that and capture that excitement."

Lofty beginnings

The partnership that's led to this pilot began with a nudge from the mayor: At a June 2012 cocktail reception for Techweek Chicago, Emanuel spoke with Starter League co-founder and CEO Neal Sales-Griffin, named one of the Techweek 100 innovative Chicago leaders. The mayor had heard about how the startup won three Moxie Awards from Built In Chicago and New World Ventures for best bootstrapped startup, educational or recruitment startup, and startup founder/co-founders.

He suggested that Sales-Griffin talk with the city about working together. "We felt like working with the city would have been one of the most meaningful things we could do to make a greater impact on people's lives," Sales-Griffin said.

Over the summer, the mayor stopped by 1871 — a 50,000-square-foot hub for digital startups where The Starter League was a featured tenant — to check out the company's classes. And conversations with Swanson, the city CTO John Tolva and Chicago Public Schools led to some traction about what they could do together.

But it wasn't until Sales-Griffin took a trip to the White House in August 2012 that the conversations got serious. After meeting with technology leaders and U.S. CTO Todd Park about STEM education, he came back to Chicago, and the three parties decided to move forward with a partnership.

The league didn't have enough teachers to instruct all the students in Chicago classrooms. So instead, the partners decided that the league's instructors would teach the school teachers, who would then be empowered to teach to students the curriculum that was successful for the league over the previous two years.

A brighter future

While some students already take computer science classes, that doesn't mean they're prepared for a job in the field, said Sales-Griffin, who graduated from Chicago Public Schools.

The theoretical foundation that schools give them is important. But they also need to be up to speed on what software developers do each day. And more often than not, many software designers teach themselves or develop skills on the job instead of getting introductory training in school.

"I looked at all the classes that were being offered and programs that had been implemented, and nothing really focused on the practical nature of how software is built," Sales-Griffin said. "And the reason being is there's this gap between what our students are taught and what's actually being practiced in the industry."

That's why Sales-Griffin and co-founder Mike McGee started their company: to build practical application on top of students' theoretical knowledge.

The pilot they're involved with is part of a broader city effort to provide a world class education to all students, regardless of what neighborhood they live in, and to offer them high-quality education choices, Swanson said. Since Emanuel came into office in 2011, STEM education has been a top priority toward this end, signified by the creation of five STEM high schools.

As technology-related jobs continue to increase, this pilot will help students learn to code, think critically and analyze problems so they can work in the industry or even start their own company, Swanson said. "We know this is where society is evolving, where the workforce is evolving," she said, "and we need our students prepared."

Photo by David Kidd

This story was originally published at the Center for Digital Education

Tanya Roscorla  |  Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.