Can code be cool, and appeal to a wider audience—even elementary students in underrepresented communities? Absolutely, according to Armando Somoza and Chenits Pettigrew. As co-founders of CodeScty, they’re out to change computer science training as we know it, teaching complex concepts and curriculum through original hip hop music and videos.
So why hip hop? In their view, if a student can’t learn in the way that you teach, you have to teach in a way that a student can learn. And that means transforming learning and standards into a vocabulary and a culture that resonates with young people. Armando and Chenits join us to talk about CodeScty and their quest to develop not just coders, but true innovators who can impact our world and our societies in constructive and positive ways.
Thank you to our amazing partners for making The Bureau Briefing possible!
VOGSY is the application for how you run your creative services shop. It all sits on the Google cloud, and uses Google apps. From that initial estimate to the final payment, you’ll know exactly how everything went so you can fine-tune your business.
Mailchimp is the marketing platform. They help you reach people with email, on Instagram, Facebook and Google ads. They give you a comprehensive dashboard so you can see all of your marketing efforts in one place.
It's Like That video: https://youtu.be/Jpi1MLxePDY
Algorithm video: https://youtu.be/mERBj-9YmUo
Carl Smith: Hey everybody, and welcome back to the Bureau Briefing. We're in for a treat today. I recently was turned on to CodeScty And you've heard me talk about Project Inkblot before. We've had them on the show. They turned me onto this. And today we have got Armando Somoza and Chenits Pettigrew, who were instrumental in this project. And they're just going to share with us who they are, what the project is, and also just how everything came together. So welcome to the show Armando and Chenits.
Chenits Pettigrew: Thank you.
Armando Somoza: Thank you so much. Happy to be here.
Chenits Pettigrew: Yeah, great to be here.
Carl Smith: Let's share with everybody a little bit about CodeScty and how it all came together.
Chenits Pettigrew: So CodeScty is a new company that we formed. We're co-founders, Armando and I. And CodeScty focuses on creating original hip hop music to teach computational thinking concepts and computer science. If you can imagine Schoolhouse Rock for coding. And so we're working on teaching coding concepts or computer science concepts to underrepresented communities. Particularly black and brown youth who oftentimes aren't given the same access to technical education.
Armando Somoza: And really it's about translating the concepts, the learning standards, and the concepts that have been defined by the field into a language and a vocabulary and a culture that resonates with young people. And it's really about teaching young people innovation skills and how to live from their ideas.
Chenits Pettigrew: Right. So we want young people to be more than just passive users of technology. We want to really enhance their learning and understanding so they become innovators and developers of technology.
Carl Smith: Well, I think you're doing it. And I have no idea what the results are. But when I saw the Like Dat video with Soul Science Lab and John Robinson, I was like, they're making coding cool. This is the weirdest thing I've ever seen in my life. So can you just share a little bit about how that video came together? And we'll definitely have it hooked up in the show notes for everybody.
Chenits Pettigrew: Definitely. The video came together. So we started this kind of a pedagogy or teaching method using US history, global history, and English language arts. That's where we started using original music to teach academic concepts. And we've been doing that relative success for quite some time. And then one of our advisors said it might be interesting for you to see if you could use the same methodology to teach a hard skills. Let's see if you can move it into the computer science space.
Chenits Pettigrew: And so we tried it, and demo'd this song. And the song is really a perspective song. It doesn't necessarily get into the nuts and bolts of a specific concept, but it really gives a general overview of just a cultural, societal technology landscape. And so we had a few meetings with some advisors actually at Google. And the song was also informed by a pilot we were running with Code Next at the time with our folks at Google. And we had some meetings, put it together. And the next thing you know, we had a pretty cool song that Asante' Amin, like you said, from Social Science Lab, produced the track. And you hear my voice on there and John Robinson's voice. So it came out, and it was really exciting and really fun. And that started this process.
Carl Smith: Well for me it was basically this amazing message about, this is the future, and you can take control of it if you want.
Chenits Pettigrew: Exactly.
Armando Somoza: You got it. It's really an anthem style that has some content and substance inside of it, in the actual lyrical content itself. But it's really about engaging and getting young people excited about what the possibilities and opportunities are in this space. So it's kind of an anthem song that's designed and meant to get young people excited.
Armando Somoza: We have other songs that are actual content songs where we use two main frameworks. We use the CSforALL blueprint here in New York, as well as the AP computer science principles course content as curricular frameworks where we write original music, the lyrics themselves that translate the concepts in lyrical form. So on our website we have a sample of that, it's a song called Algorithm. And it actually breaks down the key overview concept of what an algorithm is, but all of the sub-concepts as well in terms of pattern recognition, decomposition, inputs and outputs, variable flow. These different concepts that are taught in very dry and abstract ways.
Armando Somoza: Yeah. So what we do is have fun with it and translate it into music so that a young person can be engaging with the music on the train, on their commute, wherever they may be.
Carl Smith: And you pull it off. That's the thing. I've seen people try to put stuff to music to make it easier to learn. And your comparison with Schoolhouse Rock is awesome. Because Schoolhouse Rock is one of those things ... I'm 51, so I grew up with it, I know a lot of people grew up with it. And it's still Conjunction Junction. I know that damn song. As much as I still screw up the English language, it's like it's my own fault because I was taught.
Carl Smith: And then you look at what's happened just recently. Like if you look at Hamilton. Or for me, most of my knowledge of religion comes from Andrew Lloyd Webber and Jesus Christ Superstar. It's like these were things that it just grabbed you and you knew it. And now there are kids from 10 all the way up to, hell, my parents, who know more about history because of music. So tell me about the response and the results of Like Dat specifically. When that got out there, what was the feedback? What energy did you get back after all the energy you put in?
Chenits Pettigrew: The feedback was similar to yours. Excitement from people from different communities. So people in the CS community, there was definitely excitement there. Folks we've been working with at Google were ecstatic that we had jumped off the deep end and attempted to create something in computer science with music. And just the approach. The sound, the sonics of it, that it didn't sound corny. That it actually sounded like good quality music. And students have also responded in a similar way.
Chenits Pettigrew: That song in particular, it gives young people a familiar entry point into this world that they may have felt alienated from, or had no kind of pre-knowledge of that. Though they all have access to using these pocket super computers they're more more interested or connected to the interface, the abstracted interface that they see, as opposed to the guts and the nuts and bolts and the deeper functionality of what it takes to develop the tools that they use. And a song Like Dat makes that world seem fun, makes it seem interesting. And they've been responding.
Chenits Pettigrew: We ran a pilot at an elementary school in Chelsea recently with fourth and fifth graders. And we played a number of our songs, and all the songs resonated for different reasons and were teaching various concepts. But Like Dat resonated with them, I think, a lot, for the reason that you mentioned. That it gives them hope that they have the power to determine their own future and write it, and that they can do it through technology or whatever means they decide. So it's been powerful. It's been amazing.
Carl Smith: Well, it's one of these things where in our world ... So I ran a digital shop, and the community is all digital professionals. There are certain skills that we think of as learnable. And obviously all skills are something you can learn. But for example, project management, or possibly conducting research, things like this. Code has always had that kind of, I don't know, a barrier to it. Where if you're not good at this, you're not good at that, or you didn't get this kind of training, or you're just not naturally gifted, that you're not going to be able to do that. And that's, honestly, we're so much of the power and the money is in coding, right? The rest of us are just kind of servers to that chef. And that was the thing for me.
Carl Smith: And so now that you talk about algorithm, so you're going beyond just getting the kids excited. And it's so awesome that you're getting them in elementary school. And then you're going on to start teaching them right away and get their mind thinking in that way. So how many of the kids ... What is the process for them? How do they move on from hearing the songs to actually getting into coding?
Armando Somoza: Yeah, I think to speak to a little bit and expand on something that you had just mentioned. Chenits mentioned that we ran a pilot at Google, Code Next. This was actually in summer of 2017. And one of the biggest things that we learned there was that we were teaching directly to syntax, Python specifically.
Carl Smith: Django baby.
Armando Somoza: There we go.
Carl Smith: Love me some Pyton.
Armando Somoza: But what we realized was that that still requires kind of a baseline level of knowledge and experience with it. So we learned that that was still excluding an entire community of young people, and that we had to go even earlier and focus on computational thinking versus actual syntax.
Armando Somoza: And to speak to something that you just mentioned, the way that we think about it is that if you think of the world of linguistics, we're influenced deeply from different kind of pedagogical approaches. But in linguistics, if you're trying to learn a new language it's been proven for decades now that if you simply memorize vocabulary, you're not going to learn the language. You're not going to be able to actually speak and make meaning. If you're learning Italian, and then you just land in Rome, you have words. You know words. But you don't have the cultural context in how words make meaning in that way, and able to communicate.
Armando Somoza: So the same thing within this. It's called the programming languages, right? So it is actual syntax with specific rules and sets. That if you don't have the theoretical foundation, the cultural context in how these commands and how the actual syntax makes sense in a way, then it's just like memorizing vocabulary. You're like, okay, great, that's great that you know how to code a for loop. But in which context would a for loop best be appropriate, versus a while loop? Or whatever it might be.
Armando Somoza: So we actually stopped some of the Python syntax curriculum and focused earlier into the computational thinking space to really establish that theoretical foundation in terms of systems thinking, pattern recognition, abstraction, decomposition. Like how do you solve a problem with a logic model? And then learn syntax and coding later to then execute the goals and the commands of what it is that you're ultimately trying to do. The problem that you're trying to solve. So it's more than just an engineering problem, like a technical problem that you're trying to solve. It's a larger kind of theoretical problem that we're teaching. So we, we often say we teach young people how to think before learning how to code.
Carl Smith: I will say, I know so many people who hire developers out of code schools. And there've been quite a few of them there. They're always new and showing up all the time. And you just hit on the biggest issue they have. They don't know how to solve problems. They don't know how to communicate with code. They know how to code, but they can't put together a logical approach to a problem.
Chenits Pettigrew: Mhm. You got it. We've had instructors tell us, instructors who were working specifically in a programming language, one in particular who was working with Python recently, and said, "I have students who can code very well." They were working with a this tool called EarSketch. EarSketch that allows you to basically ... You're familiar with EarSketch. So they're proficient in it.
Chenits Pettigrew: But he said when I ask them specifically, what is an algorithm, and how does it function? What is decomposition as a principle? What is abstraction? Can you define it for me? They struggle to piece together the, the frameworks of computational thinking and problem solving. Even though they know how to write these lines of code, because they've just learned that as a skill. And he talked about how handicapping that can be for them, not having an understanding of the big picture and knowing the why and really knowing the framework.
Chenits Pettigrew: And so we focused our work on the area of computational thinking and going before syntax so that we can onboard students and prepare them for more advanced CS education opportunities. Whether they're going to go into a computer science class at school, or aa coding bootcamp. Or because computational thinking is a very interdisciplinary approach to problem solving, they may go into a different field altogether. But that understanding still applies.
Armando Somoza: Look, automation, artificial intelligence, these emerging technologies are disrupting every single industry that exists. Every single market, every single industry, every single career path. It is revolutionizing and dynamically changing our society as we know it. So it's more than just being able to learn how to code. It's more than being able to get behind the terminal and write out some script that then produces some sort of result. You actually have to know and understand how these technologies and the logic behind these kinds of automation and artificial intelligence and the pattern recognition, those different elements can be applied to law, can be applied to the medical industry, can be applied to business, to health services, to whatever, to any field. Because technology is disrupting every single one of those spaces.
Armando Somoza: So we made a choice after starting first with coding and syntax that we chose that we did not want to contribute to just pumping out more coders into the world. We wanted to develop innovators who know how to apply these ideas. And if they choose to go directly into becoming a developer of some sort, or a product manager, or something within the tech kind of pipeline. That's amazing and that's great. But what we wanted to do was instill the thought process, and how to leverage these tools, techniques, logic, to benefit them. To solve problems in their community.
Armando Somoza: I think one of the biggest things that's missing from the whole technical education, like coding education pipeline, and to be honest, Silicon Valley as a whole, is a critical lens. I think an unfortunate reality is that in our higher education and in our colleges and universities, we segment and separate the sciences from the humanities. And oftentimes if you're in one camp or the other, you just really don't receive any type of foundation in the other field. And what we've seen in the engineering space specifically is a complete void of a critical lens of how these technologies are impacting our society.
Armando Somoza: Just this year we've seen congressional hearings with the largest, the biggest tech platforms talking about the impact of these technologies on our society, on our government, on our systems, on our politics, on our ...
Chenits Pettigrew: Privacy.
Armando Somoza: Our privacy. There's no critical lens. Really, the driving motivation is around profit. It's a gold rush, and it's around profit. And that's great and all. But where is the critical perspective on the impact these technologies and emerging technologies have on us as a society, on us as a world. And that's just missing from the entire space.
Carl Smith: Wow. Thank you, first of all, for saying that. Because it is so absolutely true. And we don't think about it enough. We don't look at it. Whatever wave of technology is here right now, if we can see it, it's already too late. There's another wave behind it that, and you're empowering these youth to move forward with it. But by giving them a conscience as well, you're saving them from themselves, and helping everyone else as they move forward. And so when I see the name CodScty now, the society part stands out for me much more than the code part.
Armando Somoza: You got it. You got it. Excellent. Essentially we're bringing the humanities and the liberal arts into the science spaces, into the STEM spaces, and vice versa. And that's actually rooted in our worldview of underrepresented communities of color, of indigenous practice, of the African diaspora. Really thinking about how knowledge is acquired in a multichannel interdisciplinary approach. It's more than just becoming an expert and specializing just in one thing. That's great. That's awesome. But we also need to develop other competencies to be able to engage our world and to understand how, again, to solve problems and to build solutions towards our world.
Armando Somoza: Right now actually the UN just released a, perhaps is a little bit of a sidetrack, but they just released a report saying that there's over a million species right now that are at risk of being extinct as a result of farming and fishing and hyper industrialization and all these different things. That's technology. What is the impact of all of these different ... And then as all of these industries really become automated, that's going to accelerate.
Carl Smith: It's going to get worse.
Armando Somoza: It's going to get even worse. So again, it's about bringing a critical lens, teaching the hard skills, teaching the technical skills. But then a critical consciousness on how you can apply these skills in a way that can impact our world and our societies in constructive and positive ways.
Carl Smith: Yeah. There's a talk I'm going to put in the show notes too, call do no harm, which is all about the ethical responsibilities of developers and product companies to make sure that we have a world to build for.
Armando Somoza: Exactly.
Carl Smith: And I'll say a punch in the gut that I needed. So again, thank you for that. What happens next for CodeScty? What happens next for Chenits and Armando?
Chenits Pettigrew: Definitely. So we're working right now with our team, our founding team of seven, to actually build the first version of our platform. So the goal is right now to build a functional platform that puts together the music video curriculum, the entire learner experience for a teacher, for a student, and actually also delivers a credential badge to students who are assessed to have successfully achieved well through this learner experience. We want to finish that and begin to test it with schools in the fall.
Chenits Pettigrew: And so right now since we successfully finish the Kickstarter. Again, we say thank you for all of your support as well. But the funds and the resources that are coming from that Kickstarter are going to help us fuel this process of building this first version so that we can actually test, begin to push our solution, just out of the box solution into the spaces and places where it's needed most. So that's our focus.
Armando Somoza: Yeah. In full transparency, one of the biggest challenges we've had is securing startup capital to get going and to actually start funding. So we've been bootstrapping and self funding everything that we've done up until this point. So this Kickstarter is providing us a really great infusion of funds to then be able to iterate more quickly and really engage the space.
Armando Somoza: As founders of color, that is one of the challenges in the field is getting access to capital. And we've met with a bunch of different investors in different ways, and there's exciting conversations that are happening. So we invite anybody out there, if you're interested in what we're doing, please reach out.
Carl Smith: And what is the best way for people to get ahold of you?
Armando Somoza: Excellent. Perhaps going to our website. Our website is www.codescty. S-C-T-Y, so it has no vowels. So it's C-O-D-E-S-C-T-Y dot com. Also on Instagram too. Our Instagram or social media space is a place where we're broadcasting the ethos of our work, and highlighting other professionals of color in the field who are making tremendous impact in different ways. So that's another place where we can be contacted through any type of direct messaging in there.
Carl Smith: Well gentlemen, thank you so much for stopping by the show today. I have to say it does my heart to know that you're out there, and that you're getting supported. And that you're making a difference, because you definitely are. And you deserve everything that hopefully comes your way. So thank you so much.
Chenits Pettigrew: Thank you for having us. We appreciate your time.
Armando Somoza: Absolutely. Thank you for your support, for the platform here to share our message and our work. Yeah, sending absolute best wishes to the Bureau of Digital as well.
Carl Smith: I appreciate it. And everybody listening, we'll be back next week with hopefully a show as good as this one. Because this one was, yeah, I'm just going to say it, it was pretty badass. So I'll talk to everybody soon. All the best.
Chenits Pettigrew: Take care.