Diversity & Inclusion
Coding / Computer science / DEI / Education / Nonprofits

This free computer science program brings STEM education to underserved Philly students

Students in Steppingstone Scholars' Blended Learning Initiative learn skills like robotics and coding. There's a racial equity lens, too.

Coding class. (Photo via Unsplash)

Technical.ly is one of 22 news organizations producing Broke in Philly, a collaborative reporting project on solutions to poverty and the city’s push toward economic justice.

A version of this article originally appeared at Kensington Voice and is republished here with permission via the Broke in Philly collaborative.
By offering free computer science courses in Philadelphia, Chris Avery hopes to give underserved students a high-quality education that leads to well-paying jobs — and substantial change.

Avery is the VP of programs at Steppingstone Scholars, an education nonprofit providing pathways to college or the workforce. In 2015, he created the Blended Learning Initiative, a free computer science program for sixth to 12th graders, which is run in partnership by Steppingstone Scholars, CS4 Philly and Penn Engineering. Students in the Blended Learning Initiative learn skills like robotics and coding.

“The basic premise is helping students who are coming from underserved communities have access to computer science rigor,” Avery said. “If you’re leading to employment … it means that you have opportunities for families to actually be changed because of the program.”

In Pennsylvania, STEM job opportunities are expected to grow by 8% through 2027, according to a 2019 report by the Pennsylvania Department of Education. But the state may face challenges when finding qualified workers to fill those positions. In a 2017 report, 40% of Pennsylvania high schoolers displayed STEM college or career readiness. For Black students, the figure was even lower at 10%. According to the state’s report, research suggests that students of color, low-income students and girls are often unable to access the same high-quality computer science and STEM education as their wealthier, white and male peers.

But Avery and his team members let this information inspire their work, not discourage it. Since 2015, he’s watched numerous students excel through the program and into college, he said.

“The most exciting part for us is that we have kids who are actually pursuing careers in computer science,” Avery added. “Most importantly, because we’ve been doing it long enough, we have kids who are actually graduating [from colleges] as computer science engineers.”

What about pandemic restrictions?

Blended Learning Initiative will offer virtual, hybrid and in-person formats this fall. In-person sessions require proof of vaccination during the application process. Mask requirements depend on the location.

Because the pandemic continues to change, restrictions may look different in future sessions. The initiative runs three sessions a year — summer, fall and spring.

What to expect

A normal day at the Blended Learning Initiative consists of short lectures, small group work and breaks in between.

Because the program is open to a range of age groups (sixth to 12th graders), students are broken into about four or five different cohorts based on skill and grade level. The cohorts are usually made up of two middle school “Intro to Coding” groups, two high school “Intro to Java” groups, and one high school “Advanced Placement Computer Science A” group, with one teacher per seven students, Avery said.

Along with the coursework, the staff invite guest speakers and organize events like college visits. However, visits and speaker events have been virtual since summer 2020 due to the pandemic.

Over the summer 2020 session, Steppingstone invited Dell employees of color to talk to the students about their experience in the computer science field. Students also connected with speakers from Morehouse College. Facilitating these types of interactions helps connect students to role models in the field who look like themselves, Avery said.

“They’re being taught by individuals who actually come from similar backgrounds,” said Avery about the speakers and teachers, which is a key component of the program.

How to apply

Students must apply for the program via an online form. They’ll also fill out a program-specific form, where they’ll write a few sentences about themselves and their interest in the program. To apply, click here and select “STEM Ventures” at the top. The deadline to apply for the fall 2021 session is Sept. 23.

Once accepted, students will need a computer and internet access to participate, both of which can be facilitated by Steppingstone Scholars if necessary, Avery said.

Series: Youth Building the Future Month 2021 / Philadelphia Journalism Collaborative

Before you go...

Please consider supporting Technical.ly to keep our independent journalism strong. Unlike most business-focused media outlets, we don’t have a paywall. Instead, we count on your personal and organizational support.

3 ways to support our work:
  • Contribute to the Journalism Fund. Charitable giving ensures our information remains free and accessible for residents to discover workforce programs and entrepreneurship pathways. This includes philanthropic grants and individual tax-deductible donations from readers like you.
  • Use our Preferred Partners. Our directory of vetted providers offers high-quality recommendations for services our readers need, and each referral supports our journalism.
  • Use our services. If you need entrepreneurs and tech leaders to buy your services, are seeking technologists to hire or want more professionals to know about your ecosystem, Technical.ly has the biggest and most engaged audience in the mid-Atlantic. We help companies tell their stories and answer big questions to meet and serve our community.
The journalism fund Preferred partners Our services

Join our growing Slack community

Join 5,000 tech professionals and entrepreneurs in our community Slack today!


Cal Ripken Jr. essay: The MLB legend explains his drive to build STEM centers in schools across the nation

The end of software as technology

Calling all parents with too much toy clutter: This Philly startup can help

Drexel invests $450,000 in 3 new startups across manufacturing, sustainability and cosmetics

Technically Media