A group of sixth graders in a classroom at Bellingrath Middle School erupts with excitement. Kids are jumping up from their desks, clapping, high-fiving and cheering. The students are part of an Ed Farm Code Club, a program that does exactly what its name suggest, teaches kids to write computer code.
The scene is a pretty typical Code Club session, according to Beth Sanders, Vice President of Learning for Ed Farm. “This is what we are all about,” she said. “You can see how engaged the students are, and this is the narrative we really want to spread—that this program is bringing this kind of joy in learning to our schools.”
Spontaneous outbursts of happiness may not usually be associated with educating preteens and teens, but it’s just one of the positive feelings and outcomes that Ed Farm is currently cultivating in seven school districts across four states. MPS recently joined the list, and Ed Farm is now partnering with 10 MPS middle schools.
The organization’s President, Waymond Jackson, explained the effort. “We are a farmhouse, and we grow students and coders and teachers,” he said. “Our vision is to create a world where every single person has access to the tools they need to fill or create the jobs of the future.”
Launched in February 2020, the Birmingham-based nonprofit is just past its first birthday, but already on its way to make Jackson’s vision a reality, using a focus on STEM topics and immersive teaching and training techniques designed to get students enthused and educators up to speed. “We’re basically removing barriers in the tech space for teachers so they can reach students, for students that we’re engaging directly,” Jackson said. Ed Farm also conducts workforce programs for adults in keeping with its mission to get everyone introduced to computer science and to provide the tech training needed to jump into—and succeed in—local tech careers.
The common thread in every facet of Ed Farm is a commitment to address needs from a community wide perspective; it’s what Jackson calls the organization’s “secret sauce.” “Our approach is school-based, but it’s a much bigger approach too, because what we start in the schools spills out into the rest of the community,” he said. A close look reveals that workforce development is at the center of everything Ed Farm does. “So, the student is engaged at school, then they go home and then engage with their parents or their guardians. It’s a holistic approach, and what we’re doing now in Montgomery is really just the beginning.”
Ed Farm came to Montgomery thanks to the already existing and incredibly strong working relationship Jackson saw between Mayor Steven L. Reed, the Chamber, MPS and Alabama Power. “When we saw that, we wanted to come to the capital city,” Jackson said. “They were working together so well, and that let us know our model would succeed here.”
Ed Farm’s activity with MPS targets middle school students in two programs: its Code Clubs and the Student Fellows. “You get a kid hooked in at that age, or you lose them,” said Sanders.
The Code Clubs are intended to expose beginners to tech topics and skills, and they put a lot of emphasis on fun with program names like “Puzzles and Adventures.” “We’re whetting the appetite here,” Sanders said. Students meet once a week after school for nine weeks and get a bite of Apple’s coding language called Swift.
The kids who become Ed Farm student fellows dive deeper, participating in a program called Intro to Innovation as a semester-long elective. It’s aligned to both state and national computer science and digital-skills standards. “We also embed some civics studies in there,” Sanders said.
The first round of fellows began in January, and they were chosen by school principals and counselors, but Sanders stressed that it is not a gifted program. “We intentionally ask for kids from across the spectrum, including some who are more difficult and maybe need more help; the others lift them up,” she said.
Challenge-based learning sparks their critical thinking and pulls the students into the wide world of tech through a practical lens. “We give them a community problem to solve,” Sanders said. “For instance, right now, we are working on digital marketing campaigns.” The students chose a local Black-owned business to champion and work in teams to identify why the business matters, what it has to offer and then push that message out by creating PSAs and other marketing content.
The students also get to design an app, and it’s not simply a practice project. “They have the opportunity to push it out into the app store,” Sanders said. “At the end of the semester, we do an app pitch, so they learn how to pitch too, and if there is an idea that comes out of it that’s really good, we’ll provide the resources to help them take it forward.”
Midway through the semester, fellows take a motivating field trip to the Lab on Dexter. “There, they get to interact with local entrepreneurs,” Sanders said. “And then, at the conclusion of the semester, we do a celebration of learning.” Parents and others join the fellows for a party, where they share what they’ve learned, what they’ve loved and what they’ve created. “That’s a huge piece of how we do things, this spotlight on the students and what they’ve accomplished and achieved,” Sanders said.
Currently, there are 25 student fellows per semester, per school, and it started in January 2022, so at the end of this school year, 250 MPS students will have finished their fellowships.
CULTIVATING NEW “FARMERS”
On the other side of the equation, Ed Farm invests considerable time to train teachers. “We want to be that solution for teachers,” Sanders said. “They know this [technology topics] is important, but maybe they aren’t trained on all of it, so we walk with them through it, and we make it fun.”
Right now, 20 MPS teachers are working with Ed Farm’s Montgomery district Learning Innovation Coach Brittany Wade. “This is something else unique about our model,” she said. “We do so much hands on, and I am really co-teaching at some points.”
Sanders echoed Wade. “She is so present, some may think she works for MPS. We know this kind of service is the way to support and empower teachers.”
But they’re also building leaders, who’ll be the allies necessary to facilitate the community spread Jackson mentioned. “We want them to turn this around for the entire school,” Wade added, “so we’re not just coaching individual teachers but creating teacher leaders.”
To reach adults, Ed Farm has already hosted two pop-up adult learning sessions at The Lab on Dexter. These are free, one-hour sessions that give any interested adult the chance to learn more about the basics of app design. The key point is access and encouragement. “We believe deeply that anyone can do this,” Sanders said. “If there is a will there is a way.” Part of “the way” includes the availability of the necessary hardware and software, and Ed Farm has donated five Macbooks and five iPads to the Lab. “That means if after the pop-up, someone there wants to keep going, there are the right tools right there at The Lab to help them,” Sanders said. And in keeping with the priority it places on collaboration, Ed Farm continues to recruit other like-minded community partners to get involved, including area ministers, the YMCA and more.
REAPING BIG BENEFITS
Jackson insists Ed Farm will be here to witness the results of its work. “In any community, our goal is long-term engagement; we are entrenched now,” he said. And the fruits of Ed Farm’s and its partners’ labors should be sweet. “We’re helping students achieve and succeed,” Jackson said. “And for local business owners, we are training your current and future workforce, building pipelines of talent for companies.”
And not just tech companies. “All businesses want employees with good critical thinking, teamwork and problem-solving skills, and teaching kids to code, getting them into tech and also, the way we do all this, is giving them these skills and honing these skills,” Jackson said.
He also noted that while Ed Farm’s programs are aligned with curriculum standards, they’re equally matched with the state’s workforce and economic development goals as outlined recently by the Alabama Innovation Commission. “Their report talks a lot about the higher levels of learning and the importance of producing more students with strong STEM and coding backgrounds, as well as more STEM professional development for educators. That’s exactly what we are doing.”
KEEPING THE GOOD GOING
Ed Farm provides its access and opportunities all year long, doing code and app creation camps during the summer, and collaborating with local Girl Scout troops to create a coding badge. “We’re also working with the Nehemiah Center to do coding camps for the kids already attending their summer learning sessions,” Sanders said. Last summer, through these and other efforts, Ed Farm served more than 200 Montgomery middle schoolers.
SECRET SAUCE: “Our approach is school-based, but it’s a much bigger approach too, because what we start in the schools spills out into the rest of the community.” - Waymond Jackson