The League of Amazing Programmers fills in the gaps of tech education
When the League of Amazing Programmers opened 13 years ago, you could say it was a bit before its time. But Vic Wintriss and his wife, Diane, had a vision. They looked years ahead and envisioned that our traditional educational system wasn’t going to meet some of the critical needs of students as they entered the workforce. The proliferation of robotics, artificial intelligence and automated systems would radically change the landscape of available jobs down the line. So they started the League – a nonprofit programming school with the mission of igniting young minds through programming. It operates mainly after school hours and on weekends, or in conjunction with existing school programs.
“After I retired, I felt driven to change kids’ lives for the better with technology,” explains Vic, “so I started the school to teach kids Java, even though I did not know the Java programming language. I took a UCSD extension course in Java and we rented a small office space and brought in four iMac computers. I taught most of the students. And professional programmers volunteered after work to help teach.”
The school’s main campus is located in Carmel Valley where 300 students attend, and 200 more students attend one of 11 partner locations across San Diego County. The League’s present-day teachers are programmers, hardware and software professionals, as well as robotic hobbyists. They come with a passion and enthusiasm to pass on what they know. And Vic and Diane now serve on the board as treasurer and secretary, respectively. Vic also still volunteer teaches.
The school chooses its students with a careful balance of boys and girls to be consistent with the National Science Foundation’s goal for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The curriculum includes coding of video games, social media, mobile device apps and automated robots. Programming challenges are set up to be fun and playful.
The school has ramped up its efforts to reach out to students in under-resource areas of San Diego – going to community events, giving parent presentations and visiting classrooms directly. It also offers classes at three libraries in the county: Downtown Central Library, Malcolm X Library in Valencia Park, and the Logan Heights Library. The nonprofit looks to eventually branch out to East County schools and will be stepping up its presence in City Heights next year.
Tuition is never a barrier for a student to join. Families can apply for financial aid, and some students receive 100% financial aid for workshops and regular classes. However, many students still lack access to crucial resources at home like computers and internet access, or even a role model who already works in the STEM field.
Executive Director Sarah Cooper explains, “These factors don’t necessarily determine the path of any individual student, but we are keenly aware of the benefits they provide when present in a child’s life. So now we are working on building equity into our programs by meeting some of the needs around technology access, family and community engagement, and mentorships and internships.”
But the rewards far outweigh the challenges. Take Oscar Acevedo, a freshman at UCSD who’s studying computer science. He entered college having already earned college programming credits and with a Java programming certificate under his belt. “It was a challenge,” he admits. “But with the instructors’ help, you realize you can do it. And once you get it, you want to do it again and again.”
Executive Director Cooper knows that the demand for advanced skills in programming will only increase in the coming years and decades. However, she admits it’s difficult to predict the full scope and impact these technologies will have. Even programming languages are changing at a blistering pace.
“The beauty of the League,” she continues,” is that we instill skills and values that will never be obsolete: curiosity, problem-solving, design thinking, team work, and resilience in the face of challenges. We want our students to view themselves as lifelong learners, not only preparing for immediate career steps, but also adopting a mindset that will allow them to grow, adapt, and lead throughout their lives.”