ATLANTIC CITY — Instead of rushing for the playground after school, Diego Pelaez, a sixth grader at the Sovereign Avenue School, races to the nearby Boys & Girls Club of Atlantic City, where he can play with code at the STEAM Lab.
“My favorite part about the lab is the robots,” said Diego, who is participating in the 21st Century Community Learning Centers program. “We get to build them, make them move and make them pick up a little ball by making the robot bend at a specific angle.”
The STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) Lab at the Boys & Girls Club gives participating children up to age 12 the opportunity to learn coding, explore robotics, fly drones and practice graphic design. Developed by the club in partnership with tech giant Apple, the program provides local students with hands-on learning experience for diversified career opportunities in the technology industry.
Programs such as these are becoming increasingly critical to training the next generation for 21st century job skills. And the need is especially critical in Atlantic City, where only 25% of club students reported having STEAM-focused school classes.
After decades of enduring the effects of a declining gaming industry, the Boys & Girls Club is committed to adopting coding as a second language to ensure Atlantic City’s economic future.
“We’re providing them with not only hands-on learning experience, but we’re giving them what we call in the workforce world ‘stackable credentials,’” said Stephanie Koch, CEO of the Boys & Girls Club in Atlantic City. “At the Boys & Girls Club, we’d like to say we’re giving our kids a toolbox filled with the tools needed to prepare them for the reality of the work world.”
Apple initially partnered with the Boys & Girls Club earlier this year, providing technical assistance to staff, supplying software, donating the iPads and Mac computers used in the lab, and incorporating its Everyone Can Code, Everyone Can Create, and Develop in Swift curricula to enhance the lab’s program.
Additionally, Apple has made a larger donation to Boys & Girls Clubs nationally to support creativity, coding and career development programming. The company has donated 2,500 devices to clubs from Alabama to Wisconsin.
In addition to the STEAM Lab, the Boys & Girls Club’s Design Lab teaches teens 13-18 the fundamentals of graphic design and gives them a hands-on professional education with Adobe credentials and certifications. Other career development opportunities the club offers are in the hospitality and health care fields.
The club’s appeal to children is natural.
“One day, my school offered the program for coding, so I decided to join in,” said Diego. “I started to love coding, and now I get the opportunity to play with code and play with the technology.”
“They’re taking things that are Apple products that they know as being phones and toys, and we’re going to watch the transition of it being now seen as a tool, how that tool is implemented into a workforce opportunity, and then into an educational opportunity with the relationships that we built,” said Mia Williams, who is in charge of the STEAM and Design labs. “I personally think the next five years is where to watch because I think that it’s genuinely going to be special because we have young people that are excited and a generation that has been born into this technological age, and then you have a city that’s looking, searching and in need of a rebirth.”
The timing for a program like this couldn’t be better. A report out last month showed Atlantic County led the nation in employment losses in June, with more than 34% of people unemployed, according to U.S. Department of Labor statistics. Atlantic City is mainly sustained by tourism and the hospitality industry. Once the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, casinos, bars and restaurants were forced to close, leaving many Atlantic City residents jobless.
The club’s goal is to curb unemployment and poverty in the city by implementing a generational approach, on the way “turning Atlantic City into the Silicon Valley of the East Coast,” Koch said.
Local businesses are supporting the operation in hopes of creating a pipeline for IT professionals, web designers and digital marketers.
In the meantime, the club is helping students like Diego and Dulce Santiago, a fifth grader at Sovereign Avenue, fulfill their career dreams.
“When I grow up, I want to be a therapist or a STEAM director,” said Dulce, 11.
“I want to be a veterinarian,” said Diego.