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It was a bright June day in San Francisco, a couple weeks before the Make School Summer Academy for iOS development. In Make School’s main classroom, an excited group of talented individuals nervously talked amongst themselves as they awaited their first day of training. The new colleagues came from different walks of life — among them were professionals who’d worked at Apple and Facebook, as well as college students who had come from different countries to study in America. They all exhibited, however, a commitment to delivering effective computer science education — a commitment that brought them to Make School.
This was the 2015 cohort of iOS Summer Instructors and they were gearing up to mentor a new batch of Summer Academy students. Brought on board to be guides through eight weeks of building apps and games, the instructors were ready to advise mentees who would eventually go on to present their shipped apps at The White House, be featured on ‘Top Ten’ lists, and gain thousands of users.
Not knowing what to expect that first day, the instructors turned their attention to the front of the room to listen to Co-Founder Jeremy Rossmann as he introduced the Make School story. From the beginning, Make School had been on a quest to create an educational experience for computer science that Rossmann and his Co-Founder, Ashu Desai, had wished they’d had. The pair had built their program led by the conviction that in order to be excited by what you are learning, you have to be directly exposed to the impact that learning will have. They themselves had experienced that a grade on a project in school doesn’t excite the same kind of emotion as do the reviews from users who love your app. This was the feeling — the excitement and satisfaction of creating products users loved — that Make School wanted to impart. And it was now the instructors’ turn to fulfill that mission.
In the next two weeks, the instructors geared up for the Summer Academy. They brushed up on course material and pedagogy, and collaborated on the ways to become good mentors. They shared experiences, best practices and tools. In their down-time, they bonded — from board game nights to bouldering to brunches, the instructors spent every moment building their own community. By the time the Summer Academy began, the instructors were a united front — determined to motivate students and give them life-changing experiences.
The classroom in San Francisco boasts large open spaces and desks clustered together to promote collaborative learning. Lectures occur, but are sparse, because the real learning comes from the students themselves — from their own drive and motivation to build products that can range from education-focused apps to fun, addictive games. Throughout the process, students have close contact with instructors, who provide a guiding hand in helping students learn on their own.
This is the vision of Make School — the belief in and practice of learning by creating. Every single Summer Academy location promises this same commitment to individual practice and self-learning, no matter the classroom or city. As mentors, instructors are first and foremost concerned with teaching students how to solve their own problems. “Effective pedagogy is not at all about teaching the student how to do something; but rather giving [them] the resources to figure it out for [themselves], whether that means taking the time to explain the fundamentals or pointing to Google,” explains 2015 instructor Jorrie Brettin, who is currently a senior at MIT.
Make School’s method of teaching yields invaluable results. At the core, self-learning teaches students critical thinking skills that are the key to cultivating fully-functioning contributors to the workforce. For instructors guiding this learning, the experience is not just personally rewarding but excellent professional development as well. “Managing 40 student engineers’ deadlines is the same as managing 40 senior engineers’ deadlines,” says Jason Katzer, an instructor from 2014, who took a job after the summer as Director of Engineering at Blink Health in NYC.
Indeed, the skills instructors gain while at Make School are some of the most important hallmarks of leadership. Creating the drive necessary to ship products is exactly the same kind of work a manager implements to motivate employees. Samara Trilling, a 2015 instructor, explains that, “…there is no better way to hone your leadership skills than to motivate a dozen students to each build their own fully-fledged app over their summer vacation.”
The experience hones technical skills as well. “I began with some background in mobile apps and by the middle of the summer I could expound on protocol extensions and trailing closures with somewhat alarming enthusiasm,” Trilling, who currently works at Google, divulges. In order to be an effective teacher, you must study your subject inside and out, which results in instructors becoming better programmers.
Warren Moore, a 2015 instructor, is now an engineer at Apple’s HQ, in part because of his experience teaching at the Summer Academy. “I got my new job because of my experience writing and teaching highly technical subjects. Make School helped me hone those skills.” 2015 instructor Austin Feight was able to look at his own code more objectively because of his time at the Summer Academy. “All bets are off when you’re debugging beginners’ code. This carried into my debugging mentality with my own code,” Feight says.
However, the biggest perk of working for the summer at Make School is that the experience brings instructors back to the product-driven mentality that got them excited about computer science in the first place. Feight, now Lead Engineer at NYC company Chexology, explains, “Being an [i]nstructor reiterated the fact that the way to learn how to program is through projects you believe in.”
After two packed months filled with hard work and a lot of learning, the Summer Academy students were at the culmination of the program — Demo Day. The students arrived at Make School to set up the booths where they would finally demo their apps. They had spent all night preparing, testing their apps a thousand times to ensure their demos would go smoothly.
People started trickling in, many of them industry insiders interested in hiring engineers with portfolios to speak of. The visitors walked among rows of students — each of whom had an impressive app and a story to go with it. At each booth was a student proudly displaying the impressive product they’d built. And every time a person was intrigued by that product, it was a revelation that put a sparkle in the student’s eyes.
By Demo Day, most students have published an app on the App Store. Many of them credit instructors with this success. Zachary Espiritu, a 2015 alumnus, entered the Academy with just some basic knowledge of Java. “It was only through the help of all of the [iOS Summer] Instructors that I came out having released two different games on the App Store.”
The biggest lesson instructors are proud of delivering is the ‘I can do anything’ ambition that parents dream of imbuing. “Every moment a student shipped a game or showed sincere pride in what they had accomplished was amazing. Few things are more meaningful than being able to say ‘I created that.’” Brettin says. At the Summer Academy, such moments often result in boisterous applause from peers that invigorates and inspires students to push harder.
And the ambition sparked by students realizing they can create impact is clear. In addition to having presented their apps at The White House for three consecutive years, Make School Alumni have gained thousands of users on the apps they’ve shipped. They’ve gone on to become formidable within the student hackathon circuit, organizing and winning them. They’ve matriculated into the most prestigious colleges and have landed jobs and internships at many of the top tech giants. In short, they are the future leaders of the tech industry.
Ultimately, being an iOS Summer Instructor is about a commitment to computer science education, and the ways in which it can change lives. 2015 instructor and UC Berkeley student Abdul Alzanki came away wanting to continue the work he started as an instructor, saying, “I’m now committed to finding ways to revolutionize education, and I think working at Make School gave me a first hand experience of what that should be like.” Having felt the lack of knowledge and opportunity around him Brettin thinks Make School is addressing the issue best, stating, “I think the work Make School is doing is the most worth doing.”
It’s only through the commitment of these instructor cohorts that Make School has been able to fulfill our mission. We believe that it’s critical to construct a future where all kinds of students are motivated to create products that will change the world. We strive every year to bring in new, diverse voices to the fold to impart this motivating message to both students and instructors.
If you’re interested in shaping the future of computer science education, apply now to become an iOS Summer Instructor for the 2016 Summer Academy.