TIME Education

Kids Learn How to Code at Essence Festival Hack-a-Thon

The #YesWeCode initiative launches in New Orleans

This article originally appeared on Essence.com

Victoria Pannell could have spent her Fourth of July weekend going to barbecues and hanging out with her friends, but the 15-year-old chose to stay indoors and learn how to code.

Pannell, who traveled 24 hours by car with her mom from New York to New Orleans, was one of dozens of teens from all over the country who participated in the Essence Festival’s first-ever hack-a-thon. The event was the official launch of #YesWeCode, an initiative spearheaded by Van Jones (and supported by Prince, who gave it a shout out during his headlining performance) that aims to get 100,000 “high potential, low opportunity” youth to interested and involved in coding.

The event presented the perfect opportunity for Pannell to marry her love for computers and her passion for helping to end child sex trafficking, which was the focus of the application she spent the weekend building. When Pannell was 13, she portrayed a girl forced into sex trafficking in a public service announcement for change.org. The issue has stuck with her ever since. “After I portrayed Monica, the victim, I couldn’t sleep thinking about how there were girls whose bodies were being ravaged by strangers every day,” Pannell said. “Sex trafficking is an operation, and we want to prevent that operation from happening.” Through her application, the Sex Trafficking Operations Prevention app or, STOP, she’d help connect potential and current victims of trafficking to support services like the Polaris Project’s Hotline.

The sciences, mathematics, engineering, and technology (STEM) are the fastest growing career fields in the United States. The U.S. Department of Commerce estimates occupations in the STEM field will by 17% by 2018, while non-STEM jobs are expected to grow by 9%. Microsoft projects about 1.2 million jobs will open in computer sciences by 2020—but only about 40,000 Americans currently graduate with the necessary credentials to fill the positions. #YesWeCode is looking to increase the number of African-Americans in STEM.

“I aspire to become a software engineer,” said Zachary Dorcinville, a rising high school senior from the Bronx who crowd-funded $1,500 to purchase his plane ticket to get to the Festival. His team developed an application that uses music to make workout experiences more social. “Technology is always changing and always evolving. I love it.”

While some applications were teen-centric, focusing on issues like bullying and writing college essays, many spoke to problems that face the community at large. A group of boys built a glucose-reader. A girl from Memphis built an application that would create food-to-table partnerships in areas that are considered food deserts.

On Sunday, after working for four days to bring their ideas to life, the teams pitched their apps to a panel of judges that included executives from Microsoft and Facebook.
The most fulfilling aspect of the weekend, says #YESWECODE mentor and creative technologist Errol King, was how much the kids were able to grasp in the short amount of time.

“When you start to see light bulbs go off, when they start using the terminology we use every day in the field, you start to realize the universe has expanded,” King said.

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