DETROIT- On Monday afternoon, a group of students from Detroit’s Osborn High School sat on the fourth floor of the Grand Circus office downtown, glued to their computer screens. They were there as part of a 10-week pilot program, in partnership with theDetroit Employment Solutions Corporation, called the Hacker Society—which aims to teach kids outside of Detroit’s innovation-and-revitalization bubble about careers in technology.
For the past eight weeks, they had been learning how to write code and build basic websites. The students had a list of elements to include in their websites, like embedded videos and HTML coding, and now the students were presenting their creations to the rest of the class while fielding questions from their instructors.
Not surprisingly, many of the websites were devoted to typical teen interests: Beyonce, the NBA playoffs, favorite football teams. Mike Evans, one of the class instructors, says he was surprised by how many students wanted to use their websites to establish themselves as an authority on a favorite topic or as a platform to offer advice.
One student created a website that featured video snippets from a poetry slam as well as pictures of people he admired, like President Obama and Boston Celtics point guard Rajon Rondo. What he envisioned once his website was finished was something that allowed kids to anonymously upload and showcase how they express themselves. Though in the fledgling stages, he seemed onto something with truly innovative potential: a place online where kids could gather, hopefully away from bullies and naysayers, to share their feelings and talents in a group forum.
It was an idea that the Hacker Society instructors admitted they would not have come up with—and it’s exactly the kind of thing that Grand Circus co-founder Brad Hoos was hoping to see when the program launched. “Once they got comfortable, they were able to learn and overcome their frustrations,” Hoos says. “Everything started to come together over the last couple of weeks, which has been really satisfying.”
For the final two weeks of Hacker Society, the kids will visit places like Google, the Madison Building, and Blue Cross Blue Shield to see what careers in tech look like in person.
“I want you to think about what it’s going to take to get from where you’re sitting now to a career at one of these companies we’re going to visit next week,” Hoos says to the class, as they pack up their things and head downstairs to board the bus that will take them back to Osborn. “Ask lots of questions. If you meet someone you find interesting, ask them for a business card. They won’t be expecting that from a teenager, and that will really make an impression on them.”
The digital divide is very real, Hoos says, which was one reason the Hacker Society program was created. Grand Circus was established to be a community tech hub and place of instruction, and he considers it part of Grand Circus’s mission to reach out to those who might not have access to cutting-edge technology in their daily lives.
Osborn High School, which is in a struggling neighborhood on Detroit’s east side, focuses on teaching students about math, science, and technology. Within the school is a separate Osborn College Prep Academy, which includes leadership and entrepreneurship classes. The students participating in the Hacker Society come from the college prep academy, and they had to go through a series of interviews before they were allowed to participate in the program.
Osborn principal Senta Ray Conley says Hoos visited the school “and really sold the program.” She says the kids know that the days where they could graduate from high school and walk straight into a job with an automaker are long gone.
“They were really engaged,” Conley says, noting that the Hacker Society t-shirts the kids received as part of the program became a hot clothing item at school. “They know they need these skills to make a living, and that they have to be an entrepreneur and make their own career these days.”
“The easiest way to make money is to create something and own it,” Hoos says. “It’s a pathway to financial freedom. Tech is the best way to do that these days, and that message really resonates. Before, kids wanted to be like Mike [Michael Jordan], but now they also want to be like Mark [Zuckerberg]. Students recognize technology as cool. But my goal is not necessarily to make them great technologists, but to teach them critical thinking skills and how to go after opportunities.”
Conley and Hoos are both pleased with how enthusiastic the students have been during the initial pilot program, and both hope to replicate it next year.
Marvez Bryant, a 16-year-old Hacker Society student, says the class was his first experience learning how to write code, but he was potentially interested in a computer science career if his first-choice career didn’t work out. “Maybe I’d do this if I didn’t get a full-ride scholarship to college,” he says. “I want to build a research lab from the ground up.”
LaDarian Hobson, a 15-year-old in the class, says he’s definitely interested in being a tech entrepreneur, and he liked the fact that the class started off as a challenge: “It’s difficult at first, but if you work hard, you make progress and your hard work pays off.”