A study by the United States Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that there will be 1.4 million new technology jobs in the US by 2020, and due to graduation rates, many of those jobs will go unfilled. Only 9% of technology jobs are currently held by black workers, and 83% of start-ups have all-white teams, according to the National Science Foundation.
In her home of Des Moines, Iowa, Nancy Mwirotsi, a Kenyan immigrant, noticed African refugee families who settled there arrived with little, and their needs were enormous. A high percentage of refugee children in local schools had faced extreme poverty, trauma, and lack of education, making it difficult for them to finish basic schooling.
Knowing the need for STEM training to fill future jobs, and the need to improve the education of struggling refugee children locally, Mwirotsi decided there must be a way to do both. She founded an organization called Pi515 to teach refugee children how to code.
Programming and Mentorship
Pi515 is short for Pursuit of Innovation 515, with the number 515 representing the local area code. Mwirotsi launched the program in April 2014, relying on volunteers and 20 laptops donated by local non-profit Tech Journey. The program works with minority students in the seventh grade, and teaches programming skills and provides mentorship. Classes are held twice a month on Saturday mornings at a local church. The classes are available year-round to ensure that students remain engaged and don’t drop out.
Lessons are led by Matthew Brown, an instructor with a programming background. Brown leads the students through basic coding skills using a projector and laptops, and focuses on problems that can be solved using programming. For example, the class will research world hunger and then try to find a way that coding could help. The classes are intended to help vulnerable students gain job skills early and improve their chances of obtaining higher education.
Mwirotsi believes that the program addresses both refugees seeking better employment opportunities, and the issue of too few technology workers in the pipeline.
At the beginning, Mwirotsi had to visit with many refugee parents to explain how their children could benefit from the program, but now she regularly receives calls from parents wanting to sign their children up. There are currently about 30 children in the program, and Mwirotsi recently received a donation of 20 more computers to expand classes.
Ultimately, Pi515 hopes to do more for refugee children than providing a high-demand job skill. “I want to help intelligent kids who happen to be refugees by providing opportunities and keeping them in school,” says Mwirotsi. “It is teaching them to solve problems and become critical thinkers. I want to empower them so they can create change around them.” Although Pi515 is barely one year old, the hope is that the program will improve graduation rates for refugees, and create self-sustaining refugee communities and financially stable families.
Pi515 is an organization that has a huge potential impact and is closely aligned with business interests. That combination is rare among programs that typically focus on providing basic needs to refugees who are new to the US.
For her part, Mwirotsi is focused on providing opportunity and empowerment to young refugees, and believes that a great way to do that is through coding. “I’m just trying to get them to dream bigger and be inspired and contribute to their world,” Mwirotsi says. “They have to release the burdens of the past and look to the future.”