Share this article!

Teaching kids to code undoubtedly prepares them for the future of work. But what does this mean for the communities that helped them become career ready?

With booming tech sectors, jobs in computer science are concentrated in major cities in the United States, which means smaller municipalities often see local graduates leave for these hubs. The effect of this is an aging population in smaller towns and rural areas, fleeting investment from larger businesses and growing unemployment or underemployment as more traditional manufacturing and service sector jobs become obsolete.

Introducing the Marquette Tech District

The Marquette Tech District is working to change this in Cape Girardeau, Missouri by linking student learning with community development through coding education. 

Stacy Lane, the organization’s director of Youth Coding League, explained that the Marquette Tech District is working to build a strong tech sector in Southeast Missouri that involves the physical infrastructure, an ecosystem that is conducive to the success of startups and a short and long-term focus on talent. Lane says this effort is among the first of its kind.

The Marquette Tech district sees tech as “the new manufacturing,” with massive economic opportunity for Cape Girardeau. As Lane explains, “When we have people and companies in our region creating and selling tech, they are bringing dollars from outside our region to be spent within our communities.” 

Affirming that tech investment and local entrepreneurship are contingent on joint efforts to attract, develop and retain talent, the district serves as an incubator for tech talent by offering both adult and youth coding programs.

The Value of Coding Education in Students

Lane and the organization value coding as a regional tool. This isn’t just coding for students’ future readiness, it’s coding for communities’ future readiness.

“Our adult coding program is a way to make an immediate impact on our community, both by adding developers to the workforce who make almost double the average median salary for the state of Missouri…and by developing a technical workforce in Southeast Missouri that’s appealing to businesses.

“Our work with youth programming is a long-term approach to developing a technical workforce for our area as well as preparing students for the digital workplace of the future. The problem-solving skills and logic they gain, as well as understanding the principles of thinking systematically will help them now and in the future, regardless of the field they go into someday,” says Lane.

Marquette Tech District’s student programming includes summer camps for elementary and middle-school students as well as an after-school program, called the Youth Coding League, for middle and junior high schoolers. In this program, participants spend eight weeks learning how to program and then create projects as teams and compete to be their school champion. Each school then sends them as a representative to a larger regional competition.

Breaking Down Barriers to Participation

Beyond lowering barriers to coding education and training, the Tech District is also encouraging people to see themselves as coders.

“One common misconception we’ve tried to debunk is that to be a software developer you have to be fluent in high-level math. We’ve found this to be a deterrent for people to even look into computer programming.

“There is plenty of opportunity as a programmer where knowing basic math is completely sufficient…We share this in our messaging as well as use elements within our curriculum framework that highlight paths where a deep level of formulas and algorithms aren’t needed.”

In a similar way, the youth programs have also managed to break through the gendered imbalance that often dissuades female participation in coding. While only 18 percent of computer science majors are women and 25 percent of IT jobs are held by women, the Youth Coding League has equal parts female and male participation, which Lane is particularly proud of, and associates with three important factors: the curriculum, the age and the messenger.

The Curriculum

For the curriculum, the program pulls in thematic content that overlaps the liberal arts with computer science. One year, students worked through curriculum that was themed “Storytelling” and “Music & Sound.” Another year carried an arts theme, making the content itself very welcoming to both boys and girls.

The Age

The Youth Coding League also reaches students starting in fifth grade, which Lane explains is just before the “Middle School Cliff,” in which there is a sharp downturn in girls involvement in STEM courses. “We get them involved in coding before that big drop off, and I think that’s been a big harbinger of our success in achieving the equity we’re seeing in our female and male participation,” says Lane. 

The Messenger

The last factor are the League’s coaches who are mostly women, which enables female participants to picture themselves as computer scientists and programmers. This “empowers female participants by…welcoming them into what has traditionally been a male space before they start applying labels such as ‘I’m not good at math or computer science.’”

Giving Students a Voice in Coding

The program not only changes stereotypes but engages participants in rich learning experiences that are changing how they learn and equipping students with skills and attitudes that extend far beyond knowing how to code.

A teacher who works with the program shared in a video that “coding has given students a voice.” She adds that it has brought students outside of their comfort zone, engaged them in their other schoolwork and improved attendance.

Adding to the benefits, Lane shares that a recent student, who had struggled to make Cs and Ds and was behind his peers since kindergarten, and who excelled in the Youth Coding League. “Having classmates ask him for help – for the first time, ever – was transformative for him. Participating in something at school and receiving positive recognition for that was another first for this student.”

Marquette Tech District Youth Coding League

The Coding League simultaneously offers critical skills to students and changes the nature of the student experience in school, building confidence and rallying support and a shared enthusiasm across schools. Kids who aren’t athletic and may not be constant Honor Roll kids are finding their place in the sun with the Youth Coding League.

Like teachers, Lane’s work continues to be inspired by the students. 

“I am so fulfilled by the impact we’re having on students, especially kids in rural school districts that know how critically important the skill set is and are so enthusiastic to participate. I spend as much time in the classrooms as I can. Seeing the confidence the kids develop in themselves throughout the semester makes my daily to-do list a piece of that larger puzzle.”

Modeling Lifelong Learning

The benefits even extend beyond this. “For schools, this program is bringing an important extracurricular activity online that they don’t necessarily have the resources or the bandwidth to generate on their own.”

And for the teachers, it’s giving them access to a skill set that they know is incredibly important to their students in a way that is supported. With a pre-set coding curriculum, teachers can have confidence bringing this to their students, and as they explore and discover learning opportunities alongside their students, it’s also a great opportunity to model to students what a lifelong learner looks like.

Powering Community Development 

As the Marquette Tech District works to future-proof the area’s workforce and self-define the region’s potential, Lane explained what future-readiness means to her:

“Being future-ready means having the critical thinking and problem-solving skills needed to be successful at whatever jobs develop so that today’s students can support themselves and their families with dignity in the workplace someday.”

Learning to code extends far beyond learning about coding languages and algorithms, coding also develops 21st century skills like creativity, critical thinking and communication as well as social and emotional learning skills like grit and persistence.

Cape Girardeau, like so many communities in the United States, missed out on the economic growth associated with the tech boom. With automation and declining populations, these communities are seeing their livelihoods disappear and face mounting challenges like the digital divide and digital inequity.

The answers to these problems are complex and require creative and collaborative solutions, critical thinking and systematic problem solving and grit and a growth mindset, which sound a lot like the skills developed when learning to code.

It’s safe to say that the impacts of the Marquette Tech District go so far beyond this one region; these are the skills and vision needed to tackle the larger problems impacting multitudes of communities.

Coding isn’t the cure-all, but this gives us insight that leaning into a problem – for example, automation or insufficient local talent – and building connected and locally-oriented solutions help fuel the recovery and adaptation of a region. And in the case of the Marquette Tech District, investing in education programs that teach coding becomes more than just equipping students with future-ready skills but equipping the community as well.


This blog was originally published in October 2019 and has been updated for relevancy and accuracy. Staff Writers Team

Staff Writers

Founded in 1999, provides educators with solutions to prepare their students with critical digital skills. Our web-based curriculum for grades K-12 engages students as they learn keyboarding, online safety, applied productivity tools, computational thinking, coding and more.

Further Reading