“What is the statement you want to make here today?” That's the question that rings out to the crowd from Computer Science student and camp mentor Isaiah Johnson.
He’s inquiring about toilet paper garment designs at an impromptu end-of-camp fashion show – an unexpectedly great way for campers to get familiar with different materials, unconventional construction, and creative design and problem solving – but the broader sentiment stands out as something special.
This group of middle schoolers has spent the last five days surrounded by like-minded peers with similar interests and talents, learning from college students and professionals from their potential future fields as they honed their skills in digital design, programming and the ability to bridge computing skills into real-world applications.
Indeed, there is more to the Retailing and Consumer Science program's annual DesignYOU! Code Camp than meets the eye. Every June, groups of rising sixth, seventh and eighth graders attend to learn not only coding skills – as the name implies – but also principles of design, digital creation, and the many ways that computing technology and merchandizing intersect in today's world.
The camp runs for three straight weeks. Each age group spends five days familiarizing themselves with tools like retail merchandise systems, Python programming language, Adobe Illustrator and Photoshop.
Led by Technology Division senior faculty, and taught and mentored by students from relevant degree programs and bolstered by community connections, the camp first began in 2018 with a grant from the Texas Workforce Commission to help bring coding skills to young Houston-area girls.
Over time, the grant and the program it sponsors have evolved to include middle schoolers from around the Third Ward regardless of gender.
"I think every year the camp gets better and better," Technology Division lecturer and camp director Sue Schroeder said.
In addition to the relevant and unique experiences campers will have throughout each week, the attendance cost – zero dollars – is another large draw for area families who might not otherwise be able to send their child to a summer camp or afford educational experiences with coding and computers.
"They're going to learn a different set of skills than they would learn in a public school, or in an Algebra class. This is a one-week experience of non-judgmental learning of real-life experiences that's going to help them out throughout their lives," said Karen Jacobs, Technology Division lecturer and program co-lead.
The difference in skill and experience between an eighth grader coming to camp for the first time and one who is attending for their third year can be broad, but that's part of the appeal.
"We talk about those who have more knowledge helping those who don't have as much experience, and working as friends to help get them share their skills," Jacobs explains.
“They're getting to have all kinds of opportunities tailored to their individual abilities. We might have an eighth grader who's never coded before, and that's going to be totally different from the other eighth grader who's done Python before,” Schroeder added. “The staff sets up programs and activities that are flexible. Campers can dive in as deep or dip their toes as they're able, and they get to take their projects home with them on a flash drive to play with for the rest of the summer, too.”
Experience in the retail environment
“Is anyone here interested in starting their own business?” Retailing and Consumer Sciences student and camp mentor Nada Awad asks the group. At least a dozen hands go up in the room of 40-something campers. They report wanting to start small businesses to do everything from fine art to wearable fashion to video games to creating their own ISP.
Each week of camp includes two field trips to local retailers – one to Buckle at Memorial City Mall, and one to the on-campus University of Houston bookstore.
At the bookstore, campers break into supervised groups for a trio of hands-on activities. They pick a fictional online order, scavenger-hunt-style, for pickup; they create a fictional four-way layout of branded apparel, following principles of design and visual organization; finally, they learn to ring up a purchase at the register, including navigating the POS system, specifying quantities of scanned items, and implementing optional discounts for faculty and staff purchases.
It’s a fully immersive experience in the retailing environment with a distinct Cougar flair. Campers interface with POS systems, digital order management systems and other retail employees as they work, gaining exposure to systems many of them have never had the chance to see up close before.
"This is an interdisciplinary camp because we are connecting retail with coding. That's not a connection that people normally think of, but with the way things are headed globally, it's so necessary," Schroeder explains.
An expansive network of participants
Campers don't need a specific academic achievement level to be eligible to participate. In fact, Schroeder notes that some campers have indeed received a failing grade in a math course before attending DesignYOU! Code Camp, and some feared that this would preclude them from ever successfully attending college. Upon hearing this concern expressed by one camper, Schroeder stepped in to clear things up.
"I said, 'well, here's the good news: once you get to ninth grade, you get to start with a clean slate, so your job right now is to go back to school and learn as much as you can, spend time with your teachers to understand everything, get the best grades you can – they don't have to all be As – and then you can go to college. That's all you have to do!'" Schroeder said. "I literally saw the weight come off her shoulders. She said, 'oh, you mean I can go?' We were standing in line outside of the cafeteria looking out at Houston Park, and there were some college students out there playing music and games on the stage. 'You mean I could be a part of this?' she asked, and I said, 'yes, you really can.'"
DesignYOU! Code Camp aims not only to show Houston-area middle schoolers what they can learn today, but what they can accomplish tomorrow, next year, and beyond. "I love working with the students, and I love helping them get past barriers and hurdles. This camp really speaks to me as an opportunity to give our students a chance that they might not otherwise have," says Schroeder.
For more information about DesignYOU! Code Camp, visit its website, or contact DesignYOUcamp [at] uh.edu (DesignYOUcamp[at]uh[dot]edu).