By Elia Chen
Stanford students Rafael Cosman ’15 and Shadi Barhoumi ’17 have created CodeCamp, a free summer camp that exposes East Palo Alto students to programming. During its inaugural season this summer, the camp is running in two four-week sessions, and each session takes place at a different school in East Palo Alto.
The first session ran from June 16 to July 11, and the second began on July 14 and will finish on Aug. 9.
According to Barhoumi, the camp focuses on making students passionate about coding, rather than only teaching them technical skills.
“The biggest goal, more than anything, is to have the students keep coding after CodeCamp,” Barhoumi said. “I want [the students] to leave CodeCamp excited and inspired by what coding can do to them and what they can do with coding.”
Modeled after hackathons
Barhoumi and Cosman, both computer science majors, became best friends at Stanford and came up with the idea for CodeCamp this year while they were both teaching programming at an after-school program called Beyond Z at the Phoenix Academy, an East Palo Alto charter school.
“It was a training ground for us to learn how to teach really well,” Cosman said. “For example, we learned that taking students to hackathons is amazing.”
A few weeks into the program, they took their students to a local high school hackathon — a 24-hour coding marathon — where one of their students won.
“When we [got] back…students demanded to learn different things that they thought would allow them to win hackathons because they realized how cool hackathons are,” Barhoumi said.
After seeing how passionate about coding the students became after the competition, Barhoumi and Cosman decided to create a camp that models itself after hackathons.
The two CodeCamp sessions have focused on different student age ranges, with the first session including students from middle school to college and the second session narrowing to only high school and college-aged students.
“With just high school students, I can get to teach the same curriculum, and because they’re not 12-year-olds, I can take them to overnight hackathons and give them more responsibility, like giving them laptops that they can take home,” Barhoumi said.
A day at CodeCamp is broken up into different periods of coding, lectures and group work. According to Barhoumi, the camp also involves a lot of bonding through music. Barhoumi often brings his ukulele to camp, and the students and instructors will gather around, sing karaoke and serenade each other.
On weekdays, students also take trips to technology companies. Company tours have included Google and Facebook, and on weekends, they compete at hackathons like Angel Hacks.
Preparing for CodeCamp
Since they wanted their camp to be free for participants, Barhoumi and Cosman had to raise enough money to fund the program.
Their advisor Matt Mochary, founder of multiple companies — including an incubator for Stanford students called Focus.vc — contributed $30,000 to CodeCamp but also talked to other potential investors for sponsorship of CodeCamp.
“We got a lot of venture capitalists who said, ‘I want to donate because it seems like a really important idea,” Barhoumi said.
John Green, a successful technology entrepreneur, supported CodeCamp by sponsoring many of the camp’s students. With the help of their advisers and Focus.vc’s Demo Day, the team raised $80,000 in only eight weeks.
Another challenge that the team had to cope with was cleaning up the classrooms at Sequoia Community Day School, the location for the second session of the camp. The campus used to serve as a remedial school for students expelled from high school, but it had been abandoned since December. To make the environment more welcoming, the CodeCamp team put up posters and banners and cleaned out the spider-infested portables before the camp began.
The team also had to recruit instructors. According to Barhoumi, they were looking for people who were good at programming and who would also stay in the house in Santa Clara that the team had rented out for the instructors.
He explained some of the challenges they faced in recruitment — often the people they were looking for had already signed up for paid internships at tech companies.
“They’d already been snapped up by tech companies,” Barhoumi said. “It’s harder to entice them with teaching opportunities unless they have a golden heart or really care about teaching.”
Barhoumi and Cosman instead recruited students from other colleges like UC-Berkeley and the College of San Mateo. Besides Barhoumi, Jesus Guzman ’17, who taught for four weeks during the first session, was the only other Stanford instructor.
Making programming more accessible
In the future, the team plans to partner with Live in Peace — a non-profit that promotes “a culture of non-violence, healing and power” — to incorporate the camp into Street Code Academy, a year-round vocational school that teaches programming at the Sequoia Community Day School. The school will be open to people of all ages who are interested in learning how to code.
According to Barhoumi, the school will have six classrooms, and classes will happen on the weekends, after school and even during the day for students not in school. Inspired by Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), it will include a hacker lounge complete with swivel chairs, and the team is currently raising money for the project.
Cosman and Barhoumi both share the belief that the school, along with CodeCamp, will tackle the issue of gentrification in East Palo Alto. Because East Palo Alto is surrounded by the campuses of big tech companies like Google and Facebook, high-tech workers have started to move into the area and raise rent and house prices.
“One of the main goals of CodeCamp is to include East Palo Alto in the whole [tech industry],” Cosman said. “[Street Code Academy] will help people find better jobs.”
Cosman hopes that more tech companies will move to East Palo Alto to inspire residents and help better the area’s economy.
“When we take our students to Facebook, for example, they realize that they could build something like this, or we could work here,” Cosman said. “I would love for our students to have role models and constant reminders of the sorts of things that they can build if they put their minds to it.”
Jacob Zamara, who is currently attending the second session of CodeCamp, lived in East Palo Alto until he was 13 years old before moving to Las Vegas two years ago. Although he lives far from the Bay Area, his family drove back to East Palo Alto for him to attend CodeCamp.
“I had an interest in tech, but I have never been able to take any classes because I wasn’t willing to go out to places,” Zamara said.
Zamara has also noticed that, by inspiring kids to go into coding, the camp has affected the dynamics of East Palo Alto.
“I think it has impacted the East Palo Alto community in a good way,” Zamara said. “It makes kids want to go to school more, and it makes kids want to get into technology.”
Contact Elia Chen at elia ‘dot’ g ‘dot’ chen ‘at gmail ‘dot’ com.