Everyone Can Code: In Conversation with Montgomery College’s Dr. Sanjay Rai

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As an economic developer, I am always on the lookout for new ways to open the talent pipeline and find innovative opportunities to inspire students in the County. A coding partnership program developed by Apple helps to address both of these goals. VP of Academic Affairs, Dr. Sanjay Rai, and I recently had the opportunity to meet with Apple officials and others to talk about a program called Everyone Can Code which uses an easy-to-learn programming language called Swift. Already a success in cities including Chicago, the program is a model that Montgomery County and Montgomery College are interested in potentially bringing to its students.

This is a program that can bring literacy through coding to middle and high school students. Tell us about the potential for young minds in Montgomery County.

I think that the potential is great. We are one of the richest areas in the country, but we know that we also have areas within our county where more work is being needed.  Our wealth is not distributed equally, but we have zones where people need more help.

 We need to improve our opportunities for equality of education.

Yes, our County has a lot of opportunities, but those opportunities are not accessible to everyone.  As you know, IT and Coding are central to the skillset that is needed to access the knowledge economy opportunities. Now one reason why I’m excited about coding is this modern version of coding, for example SWIFT, these languages are engaging youths in a way that it was not possible before. If you had to learn how to program five years ago, it was a very tedious job. That’s why some of us who were called ‘nerds’ were the only ones who were attracted to it.

How would you describe the impact from an economic development standpoint?

From an economic development point-of-view, most jobs require coding. Suddenly, if your region has so many coders available, then any company that’s trying to expand…trying to come here -- whether it’s Amazon or Apple, or Microsoft – they’re going to look at talent. So, you know in the 21st century economic development is not different than talent development. You cannot do economic development without talent development.  You cannot bring social equity without doing talent development and you cannot do meaningful economic development without doing talent development to give each segment of your community access to programs that produce skills.  

What are some of the other benefits that result from a program such as coding from Apple?

Students learn more about teamwork, discipline, collaboration. I see kids playing basketball in some of our neighborhoods, so that they stay out of trouble. This one has the same kind of benefits. But there are additional benefits: you’re learning, you’re having fun. Just like playing basketball – you’re learning teamwork and you’re not getting into trouble, but at the same time, you’re acquiring skills that can get you a good salary. A good job. And put your life together. So that is from the social aspect of this coding program that we are envisioning here.

Who is the program geared to?

This partnership can include meeting the needs of middle and high school students, frequently held as summer camps to motivate students and open doors into promising future careers. The program, which encourages creativity and collaboration, provides a range of free resources from basic coding concepts to building functional apps.

What are the opportunities here at Montgomery College?

We’re thinking about offering credit for prior learning. So, the skills that you have before you come to college –whether through work or through programs like that, we’re trying to find a way of giving them badges and other credits. There are models that exist already, and we will adopt those models. The college has been very aggressive in that area through the new academic master plan that we developed a couple of years ago. This is one of our priority areas.

This could help disconnected youth.

Yes, disconnected youth are defined as teenagers and young adults between the ages of 16 and 24 who are neither in school nor working. This program could be helpful to students who have dropped out of high school, for example, along with other groups that could very much benefit. Some of our students who receive Free and Reduced-Price Meals (FARM) in the County could be potential recipients of this type of program.

How has the program worked in Chicago?

In Chicago, and in other areas where Apple has this partnership, it is highly successful. We are looking at the same model. Not communities coming to one place to learn coding, but take coding to communities where the people are, and use coding as a way to bring people together. The divide is now not in access to Wi-Fi or to a computer. In a digital economy, the divide is access to skills. So, how do you narrow that digital gap that exists? I think that one of the best ways is to give them a skillset. Coding is certainly one of the most wonderful skillset in any digital economy.

Let’s talk about next steps.

With Apple’s support and also maybe support from other companies, and serious interest from MCEDC and institutions of higher education and K through 12 system, we hope to offer coding camps in several parts of our County for youth. We also recognize that there is a capacity issue, also. How do you find more people who can teach, or who can run a coding camp? So, we are addressing that. Putting together a bootcamp for teachers – and teaching the teachers how to educate about coding.  And then using the curriculum developed by Apple. The teachers become more like facilitators.

Montgomery College is known to be both accessible and affordable.

Yes, ours is an open access institution…we work hard to make classes affordable and accessible. By doing all of these things, we become more relevant and more meaningful. Our president wants us to be a radically inclusive institution. It’s not just a word that we use. It’s in our DNA. But, inclusion also means not only within the boundaries of our campuses. It also applies to people who live in our community…how do they have access to these opportunities? Although we are open access and we are affordable, still there are people who can’t access us. So, we have to go to them in a meaningful way.

In closing, what are you most excited about when we leave the conversation this morning?

I am most excited about this…that we have changed the conversation. We have changed the meaning of ‘economic development’ for our region and what it means in the 21st century. It is not only about going after a company that can create 500 jobs. It’s about creating the environment so that every company is competing to get in here. The way to do that is through talent development. Also, the fundamentals of our economy are strong. Companies will come here and economically we will do very well. The area where I think we always needed improvement is making sure that everyone who lives here has an equal access to the opportunities here. I think it is time, and it is right and that MCEDC will help that through.

This has been a great conversation and it is certainly to be continued.  Thanks to Dr. Rai for your insight and participation.

David Petr is President and CEO of the Montgomery County Economic Development Corporation (MCEDC).