It’s a common refrain among industry experts that computer science degrees don’t adequately prepare students to work in the technology industry. Computer science degrees are too theoretical and not applied enough to be useful to employers, critics say.
Coding boot camps -- intensive programs that typically cost thousands of dollars for 12 weeks or so of training -- have emerged to plug the gap between academia and industry, providing would-be programmers with a practical education and career counseling.
But for many low-income and minority students, this kind of specialized training is out of reach, said Michael Ellison, founder and CEO of CodePath.org, which started out as a corporate training company but transitioned to a nonprofit subsidized by tech companies in 2017.
The boot camp's mission is to increase diversity in tech by leveling the playing field, said Ellison. With funding from Silicon Valley giants such as Facebook, it offers in-person coding courses and internship opportunities to college students. Classes are free to students. And he said the quality is consistent across the campuses where students attend its programs.
CodePath.org currently partners with over 25 colleges, including high-profile research institutions such as Virginia Tech, Texas A&M University and Purdue University, as well as smaller colleges and historically black colleges and universities. It offers courses in iOS and Android development, as well as a preparation course for technical interviews in which candidates are required to prove their coding skills.
Initially, the courses were brought to campuses by students and run as part of student clubs. But increasingly, through word of mouth, courses are being offered for credit. About half of the institutions CodePath.org partners with are now doing this, said Ellison.
To be offered for credit, as they are at Purdue, California State University Monterey Bay and Howard University, the courses must be sponsored by a computer science professor. But they don’t have to be taught by one. CodePath trains students to lead its courses through online programs held over summer break.
Students Take the Lead
Omar Valenzuela, a first-generation college student studying software engineering at the University of California, Irvine, said he first heard about CodePath.org last year after a friend recommended the boot camp's technical interview prep course, which takes place over 12 weeks each summer.
Valenzuela took the entry test and got in. Each participant in the course must attend virtual lectures, complete assignments and run through practice interviews with a mentor.
Midway through the course, Valenzuela was a few minutes late to a call with his mentor, explaining that he had been absorbed in an iOS project he was working on. He showed his mentor what he was working on, and she suggested that he teach an iOS course at his college.
Though he was still pretty new to iOS, Valenzuela thought it would be “an amazing challenge” to teach a class. He completed the student leader training and in fall 2018 led a class of 15 students.
In addition to providing students with all the learning materials and homework assignments they need to run the class, the boot camp provides prerecorded video lectures. Homework assignments are graded by CodePath.org engineers, and an online team is on call should students have questions or need extra support.
Valenzuela has now secured an internship at the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and he credits CodePath.org with getting him there. He wants other students to have the same experience. “They give you professional insight into the industry; they give you these skills and the network to excel,” he said.
According to stats from CodePath.org, 133 students took the technical interview prep course online in summer 2018. The students came from 80 different institutions, 70 percent were women or underrepresented minorities, and 44 percent were first-generation students.
After completing the course, students from outside the top 20 engineering colleges in the country were just as likely to receive a job offer as those who attended top 20 colleges, the boot camp said.
Increasing Interest From Universities
At the University of California, Irvine, the CodePath.org course is not taught for credit, although Valenzuela said he would like to see this happen. Ellison shares this goal. He wants computer science degrees everywhere to incorporate CodePath.org courses.
The courses supplement, rather than replace, the traditional computer science curriculum, said Ellison, though he acknowledges that his organization could design an entire degree program, and he says they are already being asked by some colleges to evaluate gaps in their computer science programs and design customized courses.
“In the beginning, it was us reaching out to student clubs and students becoming leaders on campuses,” he said. “Now every week we have faculty and deans reaching out to us.”
By training students to lead its courses, CodePath.org has developed a highly scalable model, said Ellison. The cost per student to the boot camp is relatively low, he said. Development of the organization’s learning platform is the biggest expense.
Universities and colleges struggle to recruit and retain computer science professors due to competition from industry. Student instructors could help solve that issue, said Ellison. However, some professors lead CodePath.org courses. Professors are easier to train than students, Ellison said. But student leaders, who are paid by CodePath, generally get better results.
Outcomes are important to Ellison. “We track every single class, even if it’s a faculty-led course,” he said. “We care about high completion rates. We care about measuring proficiency. We assess students across a lot of different areas, and we follow them after their course.”
Ellison cited the high demand for software engineers, with roughly 500,000 positions currently open.
“Companies cannot hire enough people,” he said. Computer science degrees are not delivering the curriculum that these employers need, he said. But they could -- with a little help.
Keeping Courses Fresh
Legand Burge, professor of computer science at Howard, was putting together a course in mobile application development when one of his students told him about the boot camp's courses.
“They came to me and they said, ‘You need to use this CodePath curriculum,’” he said. “At the time I was chair of the department, and trying to keep the course fresh and up-to-date was a challenge. For me it was a no-brainer.”
Burge said he was able to teach the course as-is, but he noted that instructors can adapt courses if they wish. He took the learning outcomes from the course and created a grade rubric. Initially, Burge led the class, but he soon let students take the lead. He now acts as an adviser to CodePath.org’s board.
“Most faculty, they’re juggling research and teaching. It’s tough to keep up-to-date with what industry needs,” he said. “Students come into computer science looking for three outcomes -- they want to get a job in a tech company, they want to do a grad program or they want to start a company. CodePath plays a role in supporting all three of those.”
Terry Miller, an instructor in computer science at Alabama A&M University, was introduced to CodePath.org by Burge. When she first heard about the courses, Miller questioned how it could be offered for free.
“I said, ‘This can’t be true -- you’re providing all these resources at no cost?’” she said. After discussing it in the department, the dean agreed to incorporate CodePath.org’s Android development curriculum into one of the institution’s mandatory computer science courses for seniors in the major.
“There were some growing pains,” said Miller. “Students expected this would be an easy class, and it was way more intensive than they’re used to."
The Android development course was led by a student leader, with Miller there as support. “This was something new and challenging for our students, and I didn’t want them to clam up and shy away from me. This was led by their peer -- their friends. And I think they felt more comfortable reaching out to her day and night than they would with me.”
The student leader did a fantastic job, but Miller acknowledged that it is a big responsibility for a student to undertake. “I mentor her and she was the overachiever student. I didn’t think that she would have trouble handling this.”
Some members of her department were resistant to incorporating CodePath.org courses into their teaching, said Miller, but she thinks they may be won over. “The program has been very successful and beneficial,” she said. Not only have students learned skills they would not have otherwise had access to, but they also are actively thinking about how to market themselves to employers.
“I applaud CodePath for doing things like this. Computer science programs are not all the same -- we don’t all have the same resources,” she said. “So for CodePath to come in and say, ‘We have the curriculum, we have the expertise and we want to give this to you and provide 100 percent support,’ that is fantastic.”