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STEM Coding Lab Prepares Children from Underserved Communities with Digital Skills

Business as Usual
Education & Non-Profit

On Business as Usual, we will welcome Casey Mindlin, Executive Director of the STEM Coding Lab, to overview the lab's mission to provide children in underserved communities with access to computer science education to better prepare them to compete in a digital world.

STEM Coding Lab is the only Pittsburgh nonprofit devoted exclusively to bringing computer science education into under-resourced schools throughout our region.

The lab believes that early classroom introduction of core computer science concepts will help shrink income disparities that persist throughout our region and prepare all our youth for the future of work.

The work of STEM Coding Lab is designed to activate the next generation of digitally literate professionals. Working in both in-school and after-school settings, the lab strives to expose students learning in underfunded communities to computer science lessons that will prepare them for the 21st Century.




Good afternoon everyone. This is Audrey Russo, President and CEO and today is I don't even know what day today is what I do now, it is the first day that all of the team in the Pittsburgh tech Council is in the office together, we are so happy and it's quite emotional, we're excited to be with one another. The only reason I blurred the background is I have a whole bunch of information behind me that I think would distract you from the content of what we're providing today. So we're pretty excited to be all together. And we're even more excited about today's guest. I'll introduce him more formally in a moment. But before we get started, I want to give a shout out to those who help us and make sure that we are doing this each and every day, which I believe is I think we're getting into like 16 months now. Jonathan Kersting is with us each and every day. He's vice president of all things media, and marketing and storytelling, and all the things that shine the light on our region. And the amazing things that are happening here today is no, no no different. We're gonna be pretty excited about talking about STEM and coding and stem coding lab and and all the good things that are gonna accelerate us into tomorrow. So Jonathan will be monitoring the chat, and we put all of you on mute. And we've done that just so that we don't hear anything in the background. Also, just as a reminder, this is not an opportunity for you to sell your wares. This is an opportunity for you just sit back, eat your lunch, have your coffee, whatever it is, and just focus on our guests. And our as I said, I'll introduce the guests in one moment. So thanks to Huntington bank, thank them, I'm thanking them for their continued support of us. It's just amazing. them being believing in us, just let us try all these different experiments. It's just been wonderful. So if you don't know, then get to know them. They're heavily involved in our region in the community, helping small businesses helping large businesses, you name it, they have their finger on the pulse. So we're pretty excited about the long term partnership. We also have 40 by 80. That's the longitude and latitude of the Pittsburgh tech Council of Pittsburgh, do you see that I, I own the longitude and latitude now, but it's the longitude and latitude of Pittsburgh. And that's what we named our nonprofit arm. That's our charitable arm. And that's where we focus on all things that are related to both entrepreneurship but more importantly, education. And soon you're going to hear from in the show, actually, you're going to hear from one of our teammates, who's leading our efforts on apprenticeships, and I will formally introduce Marie polonium in at least I don't know, maybe halfway through the show. But we're pretty excited about the work that she's leading for us, and how it fits into the conversation that we're having today. So, without further ado, I would like to bring to the forefront. Casey Midland. He is the executive director of STEM coding lab. And as I mentioned earlier, we're going to introduce Murray pallone, probably in about 15 minutes or so. So Casey, welcome back home to Pittsburgh, welcome. You're no stranger to the team here at the tech Council. But let's take a few minutes about introducing you, Casey to our audience and then telling us not only about your background, but we'll then jump into talking about the history of STEM coding lab. So thank you, Casey.

Thank you, Audrey. I really appreciate it. Thanks so much for having me. This is such an exciting opportunity to share a little bit about STEM coding lab. But first me, I won't spend too much time on me, I promise. But I was born and raised in Pittsburgh. I'm a proud pittsburgher. And my career started in the world of education. I started in Washington, DC, where I was in the office of Senator Michael Bennet from Colorado on education policy. So public policy is honestly my first love and then from there went to a government relations firm called American cottonelle Group, which was run at the time by a pittsburgher that Brian and I both know. And, you know, had a couple jobs at American continental group ended up being our Director of Communications and business development, and I was also managing a few of my own clients, one of which was scholastic. Everybody knows scholas Clifford, The Big Red Dog and book fairs and book clubs. And while I was representing scholastic on Capitol Hill, I was lucky enough to be offered a full time job. And from there, I was director of partnerships for scholastic for about six years. And during that time, I oversaw all of scholastics partnership initiatives with both the federal government as well as companies at a Silicon Valley. So what that what that looked like was, you know, scholastic coming together with the Department of Labor, for instance, to talk to kids about career pathways that they need to be aware of, you know, partnering with the d. o. t, and Department of Defense to, you know, activate the next generation of engineers and cybersecurity professionals. We partnered with the FDA to tell kids not to vape you know, the list goes on from there. And I was really proud of that work, because it really sort of lent a terrific insight into what's needed in the world of education right now. And what's needed is a movement collective movement that is committed to sort of, you know, opening up opportunities for all kids no matter what their demographics, the socio economic backgrounds, etc. So I was really proud of that work. And then from there, I was grateful enough to be offered the job as executive director of STEM coding lab, which is where I find myself today.

That's great. And so coming back, how long have you been back in Pittsburgh?

I have been back for about two and a half years. My family and I live in Aspinwall we have a little three year old retired in DC of the 700 square foot one bedroom apartment. And we came back here and that was the honestly my sort of master plan all along, because honestly no place. No place makes me happier than Pittsburgh. And it's not because of the weather. It's because of the people. So you know,

so how does it feel? How does it feel to be back half of that time? It's been under COVID? Oh,

well, you know, I mean, they the the trials of parenting, a three year old amidst the global pandemic are, are well documented here. And I am no different. But honestly, our community and ask them all here, as well as the stage just generally has been so crucial and for navigating this, you know, we were so thankful for it and, you know, grateful that we came through on the other side is still smiling today.

It's so great. So, so laughter back, and glad that all of us are back, actually. So, really appreciate. So tell us about a little bit about the history and the mission of the stem coding lab. And also tell us the website so people can, we can put it in the chat.

Yeah, so the website is stem coding And I'll start with the mission, the mission is to provide children living in under resourced communities with access to the computer science education that will prepare them to compete in the digital world. We were founded in 2016, by our by a man named Viv ponente, who was an Indian immigrant who came here to get his master's at CMU. And then went on to found and run a number of businesses and information technology as well as data analytics. And Viv was able to see firsthand the need for 21st century talent and the need for us to close the digital divide by engaging under resourced communities with the education that's going to prepare them and activate them for the future of work, right. So we were founded in 2016, operational in 2017. And since then, we've really made an impact that we're incredibly proud of, in areas of learning across the city via public school in Pittsburgh public schools, or charter schools or community centers, and so forth. So that's a little bit of background.

So you partner with Pittsburgh public schools, and you mentioned some others and other districts in the region, to provide, you know, calm site classes on the topics of coding, robotics, animation, etc. First of all, are there any other categories that I've failed to include? And second, can you tell us actually about the programming?

Sure. Um, so a couple categories you You didn't include web and app development, we engage kids on web design and app design and development of, of those resources, as well as just kind of foundational digital literacy. We understand that our teaching is going to fail to effectuate the impact, we hope it will, without ensuring that kids have just foundational digital literacy and digital skills that are necessary to move on to sort of more nuanced and complicated topics like web and app development and robotics, animation and so forth. So, um, you know, we, we really go wherever we're most needed. Our mission is to serve the under resourced communities of this city. Um, we know that the need couldn't be greater. There are 20,000 more than 20,000 open computer science jobs in the Commonwealth today, all of which carry an average salary of about $89,000 per year, coming out of college. So and you know, I think that more specifically, our city is brimming with opportunities in June of 2020, at the height of the pandemic, you guys probably know this Pittsburgh had more tech job openings than any city in America. And, you know, we feel that it's our responsibility to prepare Pittsburgh kids for Pittsburgh opportunities. And we strive to do so by introducing kids from across the K 12. spectrum to computer science in a way that's honestly fun and unintimidating. Right, I think many of us see computer science as a career venture that is over our heads and sort of too complex to, to delve into with, with the certainty you need to know that you'll be able to get it. And we really tried to sort of debunk that, that stigma and that myth by, you know, approaching computer science education in a fun way that empowers kids to understand their own potential in this space. And understanding that, you know, they too, can do this work, if they just, you know, put the work into it, right. And so we, we partner with Pittsburgh, public schools, as you said, We serve schools like King elementary and phase on and Lincoln but we also, you know, serve our charter schools in the area, our environmental charter school, as well as propel on the north side. As as well, as you know, our community centers, you know, our learning hubs that have been so, you know, crucial amidst COVID. We serve them as much as humanly possible, you know, folks like Latino community center, and that the makers club house and the center that cares, the homeless children's education on the list of partners goes on. And really, you know, I mentioned them to sort of contextualize our approach a little bit to this. I mean, we don't confine ourselves to one sort of area of learning, we really try to go wherever there's opportunities for young minds to be captivated by this by this learning. And wherever there's opportunities for us to sort of prepare kids for the future of work that don't, that don't get right just through their regular schooling. I think that the, you know, there are too many under resourced schools in this region to count. And so our work is that we got a lot in front of us. And our commitment is to those kids who are learning in those under resourced environments and needing to be exposed to computer science at minimum.

Casey, what does that mean, like in terms of age, in particular age range that you focus on?

Yeah, yeah. So we cover the full k 12 spectrum. But typically, when folks think of computer science education, they think of high school, right. And I think that, that is, in many cases far too late. So we really strive to engage K through eight audiences with our education, because we believe that sort of early exposure to computer science education will not just pique your interest, but also facilitate the high school education that they're going to receive in a more impactful manner. I think that largely, if kids get to high school and have yet to ever, you know, received your computer science education, you know, the chances of them going on to major in the topic or pursue a career are, are far more limited. So we really, our sweet spot is probably, you know, no, grades three through eight. Because we believe that that is the age where kids are really starting to formulate career, visions and opinions of their own. So that's a that's a crucial period for us.

Well, actually, if I can just do a plug. I can't remember Jonathan might remember. But a few years ago, I actually wrote a piece on the digital divide and said that if kids by the time they enter kindergarten, if they haven't been exposed, and they haven't been immersed, if they haven't had an iPhone or whatever technology at their fingertips, they're actually lagging by the time they get into kindergarten. Right? So I'm agreeing with you, then it's it's that early, and it's that ubiquitous. So I'm going to switch gears for a second in case you don't go away. We are thrilled to have Up on the nonprofit arm I mentioned earlier 40 by 80. We have with us Marie pallone. We're going to talk about their the nonprofit side of the tech Council. And we're going to talk about partnering with you on the CS explores at Philips recreational center this morning. So I'm going to bring Marie on and hope that the both of you, and Marina actually runs at anything that sort of touches, workforce and talent. And so if you can think about that, it's sort of, you know, workforce and talent as it relates to people who have have experienced or just sort of fresh out of school, but also in terms of what we're calling pathways or pipeline development just as what you've articulated case. So first of all, welcome, Marie, thank you for joining us today. And she's just, she's just an invaluable member of our team who's doing a lot of thinking and leading for us. And she has a background in education. So she's probably one of our smartest people on our team, we know about the world of education and, and development of these pathways. So thank you, Marie, being here. So with the both of you, or one of you to sort of talk about this, CES explores Philips and the Rec Center and sort of you know what's up with that, and what we can anticipate.

Yeah, so I'll tell you to just sort of how this partnership all came to being that is a very magical partnership. But thank you for that wonderful intro, Audrey. So my role here at the tech Council, it doesn't just keep me on the tech council side, I get to work on both sides of the house with 40 by 80 are nonprofit as well. And together with the director of 40, by 80, Maria for tour, we get to work on anything that's going to invest in people in the region. So a lot of that is education and our wonderful students in the region. So we started a program about a year and a half ago, where we were bringing STEM professionals from the region into middle school classrooms. And really having them do experience activities with the kids. And then taking the kids prior to COVID. back into the offices and manufacturing and industrial sites have these professionals and it was great. But then we met Casey and realized that along with Casey and his team, we can now do hands on coding activities with these kids that fit into each one of these industries that we were exposing them to. And it was beautiful. So this summer, we get to launch the ice explorers, which is really led the curriculum portion is led by Casey's team. And we are coming in in partnership to bring in STEM professionals and then really working together to bring these kids on many field trips into the industry. But it's a four day experience in six different themes. And thank you for putting the link over there in the chat for anyone to check out. But six different themes for middle school aged kids. We bring in STEM professionals, they talk to the kids about their role, their pathway, their work, the projects, they're working on what they love about their job. And then Casey's team lets the kids dig in and do coding activities to really support all of these different industries. So whether it is robotics, or artificial intelligence, advanced manufacturing, the kids are doing activities, and then we put them on a bus and we take them into and anywhere we can go right now, thank goodness, the world's opening up slowly for these children, but they get to walk the halls, talk to professionals and see how many as Casey was referring to amazing opportunities are out there for them. And the all the different pathways for them to get there and what they can start in middle school working on and just find out what they're passionate about what they love and what they're good at.

Yeah, want to add anything to that case?

Sure. Yeah. You know, I think that Murray described it very well. Um, you know, we were going to it's a six week program, during which we're going to be focused on six computer science themes. And those themes are artificial intelligence, robotics, advanced manufacturing, cybersecurity, animation, and data analytics. And we're gonna focus focus a week on each of those themes. And the first day of each week is going to be sort of a one on one, what is a AI? You know, what is data analytics, right, kind of buildings foundational knowledge about the topic, and then day two, thanks to Murray. You know, we're going to be bringing our real life or real life tech experts into the room to talk about sort of the real world manifestations of their work, right, like where have you seen our work and may not have noticed, right, as well as I think most importantly, the pathway they took to get to that job, right? I think that we're trying to allow our students to see themselves in the shoes of a tech experts, right and, and then sort of empower them with hands on learning. Day Three is going to be the experiential day where we're actually asking them to code their own robot or animate their runs, you know, short story for their la classroom, you know, do those things that allow them to actually use this technology in a way that allows them to see themselves as a future expert. And I think that I would be remiss in not mentioning that, you know, this partnership is also in conjunction with the city's rec tech team, though, the mayor's team has wrecked the tech initiative that has really sort of revitalized all of our city's recreation centers and made them into places of maker learning, right. And all of this is, thanks to, you know, the generous support from the PPG foundation where that has funded this effort. And we're a last thing I'll say about it is our goal for this program is not for kids to come away with the technical skills necessary to jump into a career at Google like tomorrow, but rather for them to leave this program with a fully contextualized understanding of the very pathways they could take to enter into a CS career. I mean, we want to contextualize the ubiquity of this, right? And the the many ways that you can use and harness computer science to your to your benefit. So yeah,

so you know, while we're talking about this, I just want I'm going to put Maria on the spot and talk about another program that we do called launch that talk about, can you talk about launch? Yeah. And how it sort of fits into our whole strategy. Yep.

So on that board, at, say the house, we really try to create a whole pathway for students starting young, we just finished up our STEM summit last week that engages kids of all ages gives them sort of that taste, then they can go into CS explores do exactly what Casey and I are talking about today. And then if you're a young woman in the city of Pittsburgh, and you're interested in STEM, and you're interested to be in a leader of STEM, we then have a leadership and STEM program for high school girls in grades 10 and 11. It's called launch. It stands for learn, Aspire, understand, navigate, connect and highlight. And it's a summer it's a program throughout the year, we have a summer cohort coming up, but really allows those young women to take it even one step further. And connect with female mentors who are working in the STEM world to create a plan for advocacy to be exposed to different stem roles, again, taking trips, but just really immerse them in that in the field of STEM and in that in those pathways. So yes, that is another program that we offer.

So it's all it all fits together here. So are you recruiting for students right now? Absolutely. We

are recruiting for CF explorer students, you can get on that link and find your way there. Like Casey said, it's going to be held at Phillips Rec Center. We are recruiting young women in grades 1011, who live on the north side are live in North Shore. But link is also over there in the chat for any young women to apply. It starts June 29 and goes through August 5, Tuesdays and Thursdays and RCS explorer starts telling the exact date, Casey.

So it starts on July. It starts July 25? No, July 12. July 19. I'm sorry, July 19. And it goes to August 16, I believe or August 19. Right. should have had those dates. And

that's okay. That's okay. We we put links up there. So that's good. We don't expect you to know everything there. So what what have you both from your perspectives right now? What have you learned? What have you learned as, as people who are putting this work together? What are some of that any Aha, or things that you might want to share with our listeners that we might be surprised about or things that

you? I think that, um, this work has illuminated for me in large part that it is crucial for us to include our private sector community, and, you know, our tech companies throughout the city. In this process, I mean, I think that, you know, lots of people talk and I agree about the need for tech companies to be investors in, in the workforce and not just consumers. Right. I think that, um, you know, we need to make sure that kids are aware of the innovation that's occurring in their own backyard, right. I think that a lot of kids in the city, particularly those in our more distressed communities, aren't aware of the amazing things that are happening for you know, it within the tech community, and need to be aware if they're to, you know, pursue the skills necessary to enter into one of those roles, right. So, I think that, um, you know, galvanizing a community of tech companies to support our kids in their growth in their exploration of careers, is essential, um, and, you know, a ton of them and that's not to say that you guys aren't already doing that. I mean, there's this this city should be applauded. For its, you know, corporate participation in the education process, I think that it needs to grow, it needs to continue to grow. Because not only do you guys are you guys doing so many wonderful things, but you're going to gain long term yields out of exposing kids to those innovations today, because they're going to be launched on a pathway we hope, toward readiness as well as a prosperous career. So that's what I would mention. So before

we jump to a question real quick, I, you stole my line, just for the record, Casey, and it's about builders and consumers, I say to people, if you want to come, if you want to come to a place where you want to build, there's no better place in the world than Pittsburgh. But if you just want to be a passive consumer, we don't necessarily, we don't necessarily need to meet the builders and people to have an impact. So I think their tagline supersedes almost everything that we did. So I appreciate that.

Yeah, no, I mean, it's one of my favorite quotes is, it's it's easier to build strong children than to repair broken men. And, you know, it is critical for us to you know, sustain a commitment to the kids in this city, because of the, you know, never ending opportunities available to them in this city. Right. And I think that if you look at the census data, and if you look at the data around, you know, college Pittsburgh college graduates leaving after they graduate, we're leaving a lot of talent on the table. Um, I think it was something like the Allegheny conference had a report that said that, you know, 50% of the region's college graduates relocate after graduation. And the reason that they The reason for that, according to this report, was that they just weren't aware of what was going on around the city. So I think that a commitment to that scaling of awareness and engagement, particularly with our youth, the earlier the better, as I said, said before, um, will kind of put us on a pathway for more sort of inclusive Pittsburgh and a more economically vibrant Pittsburgh.

So I'm going to Jonathan, is there questions that other questions out there before we wrap up?

Definitely such a cool conversation. I just love these conversations. So much fun. So Dan Griffin wants to know, personally, thank you for this terrific program. with snow can kids he has a niece that's age nine, and then a nephew aged 11 applied without their school involvement? Yes. First, yes, explorers? Absolutely. You know, RCS explorers program is available to anyone who wants to join us. Um, you don't need to, you know, go to a specific school or be affiliated with a specific organization, check out the link, sign up, and we'll be happy to, to include you in this journey. Very cool.

That's great. So, Maria, is there anything else that you want to give a shout out to in terms of the work with 40 by 80, or any of the things that you've learned?

I just want to thank Casey for the partnership, I think that he's so many organizations are all doing such impactful and needed and great things in the city. But our partnership really highlighted for me that the more you work together, the bigger and better your programs can be and the further reach you can have. So I just really want to thank Casey for being able to do that. And I am I'm super excited for not only this summer, but just to see where CES explorer goes, I see this scaling to be after school programs and just really building from here. So yeah, just excited. Yeah.

So if people want to get in touch with either of you, can we put your emails out there and share with them? Where should they go? Would be great if you could put that in the chat. So I am very thrilled. I am very thrilled about this partnership. I'm glad that Casey came back and is raising his family here. I think that's always great to go out and then come back. And that's what we need. That's what we need people who care people who want to build. And Casey obviously, that's your passion. So really appreciate it and read put her email out for females out. And Casey we think we know where to find you.

So I'll put my email in the chat as well. But I just wanted to say thank you, Audrey. Thank you everyone in the tech Council and thank you Marie and 40 by 80, Maria and Maria, as I call them m&m. They told me she told me the con was they told me that other people call them It wasn't my idea. I but, you know, honestly, really, it's a rising tide lifts all boats and you guys are really representative of the rising tide here and right. I think Let you're eager to continue to work with you all and gain the benefit of your collective expertise. And just grateful for the time. Thank you all.

Thank you all. Thank you both. Thanks for joining us. Thanks, everyone for joining us, Jonathan, what's on? What's on the horizon? Tomorrow? We're

taking the day off, but we're back on Thursday with Bob Stein for the Institute of entrepreneurial excellence stopping by so Be there or be very square. That's all I can say.

Excellent. Thanks, everyone. Stay safe.

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