At a time when whole industries have shifted online in response to the coronavirus, historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) are deepening their coding education through a partnership with Apple. The tech giant recently expanded ties with HBCUs as a part of its Community Education Initiative, launched last year.
Apple will support an additional 10 HBCUs, now 35 in total, to develop coding programs for both their students and their surrounding communities with the goal to create “regional hubs” for coding education. To participate, Apple selected Morehouse College, Dillard University, Claflin University, Lawson State Community College, Arkansas Baptist College, Central State University, Fisk University, Prairie View A&M University, Southern University and Tougaloo College.
“Apple is committed to working alongside communities of color to advance educational equity,” said Lisa Jackson, Apple’s vice president of environment, policy and social initiatives, in a statement. “We see this expansion of our Community Education Initiative and partnership with HBCUs as another step toward helping Black students realize their dreams and solve the problems of tomorrow.”
The Apple initiative is one of a few overtures made by major companies to HBCUs this summer amid national protests against police brutality and racial inequality. Amazon, for example, made donations to the United Negro College Fund (UNCF) and the Thurgood Marshall College Fund in June, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings promised $40 million to Morehouse College, $40 million to Spelman College and $40 million to UNCF. Meanwhile, Zoom and Claflin University entered a five-year partnership that will offer paid internships and scholarships for students and curriculum guidance for the university.
Apple is giving new equipment to partner schools and it’s training HBCU faculty to teach coding and app design, with the help of instructors from Tennessee State University. For the past two years, Apple has been working alongside Tennessee State University’s HBCU C2 initiative, which aims to foster coding education at HBCUs. The university – whose leadership originally approached Apple about working with HBCUs – will now serve as the national hub connecting schools within the partnership.
As a part of the initiative, Tennessee State University will continue helping HBCUs create and build on existing coding programs and develop apps that address community needs. For example, one school now has an app for finding food pantries in the area. The hope is to empower not just HBCU students but the communities around them to learn coding “from preschool to senior citizen,” said Dr. Robbie Melton, associate vice president of the SMART Technology Innovation Center and graduate dean at Tennessee State University.
“When you come to our classes, you don’t see your traditional college students,” she said. “You might see the granddaughter, the mother, the grandmother – and in one case we even had a great-grandmother sitting there and learning coding.”
For Claflin University provost Dr. Karl S. Wright, the partnership comes at a time when coding skills couldn’t be more important. As an educator, it’s his job to “peek into the future,” he said, and after the coronavirus shifted so many sectors online – including higher education – he knows coding experience will help students “succeed and thrive.”
He wants to see the broader community learn these marketable skills, too. The university plans to make coding opportunities available to K-12 schools in the area as well as its two neighboring institutions, Orangeburg-Calhoun Technical College and South Carolina State University, which is also an HBCU. Eventually, he hopes the school can offer coding education opportunities to the seven other HBCUs in the state.
“What COVID-19 has revealed is the fact that the world has gone digital,” he said. “It’s clearly shown that technology looms larger than ever before in how society functions and how jobs get done and in how institutions teach, quite frankly. Teaching our kids coding and creativity really enhances their marketability in this new post-COVID environment where so much of daily life – work, recreation, medicine, education – is digitized.”
For Black communities, the coronavirus also revealed a “technology gap,” said Eula Todd, administrative assistant for Title III, sponsored programs and development at Lawson State Community College. Her school’s partnership with Apple makes sure “a population of people who may have been left out … now have the opportunity to participate because they have access in their community to devices and training.”
With Apple’s help, Lawson State Community College is going to build on the communal coding initiatives it’s already offering, now with more resources and guidance. The college runs coding summer camps for middle school and high school students and held an eight-week coding program for working adults looking to shift or advance their careers.
For Dr. Kesha James, director of distance education at Lawson State Community College, this is a significant step toward diversifying the tech industry.
“For me, it’s incumbent on the tech industry and educators to work together to activate strategies to ensure we’re leveraging the talents of individuals of all backgrounds and experiences.”
Melton agrees. Before embarking on this new initiative with Apple, she thought she was ready to retire. Now she’s too excited about her work. Her new goal is to see minority women in STEM fields triple by the time she retires, she said. She thinks this partnership with Apple has that potential.
As HBCUs, “we shared with them our need, our passion, and our empowerment as a collective,” Melton said. “We have a little motto among the HBCUs – we don’t compete against each other, we complete each other … My goal is to increase the number of Black women in STEM and computers, and Apple has said, ‘We will help you all the way.’”
Sara Weissman can be reached at [email protected].