Thirty miles south of Cape Girardeau, Missouri, at a small school where basketball is king, a coding powerhouse is emerging.

Its latest championship team? Four girls who’ve been busy showing everyone, including themselves, that coding can be for anyone, anywhere.

And none of it would’ve happened without the Youth Coding League (YCL), a program created and organized by the Codefi Foundation on Rural Innovation, southeastern Missouri’s first tech incubator and co-working space.

Codefi launched YCL in 2018 at 10 pilot schools as a way to build momentum and awareness for digital skills and careers, and provide a new outlet for students in the region. By 2022, the league had grown to include 60 schools from six states, and will be in 80-plus schools in seven states for the 2022-23 school year. And the early exposure to tech skills is already getting kids to think about how coding could be a part of their future.

“Without coding, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life, to be honest,” said Elliana Britt, part of that winning team at Scott County Central School. “But coding, since it’s a really good job to have, it’ll be a good career to work towards. I do like playing basketball, so I’ll work towards that, but computer science is just really fun.”

How the league works

Youth Coding League is an after-school program for students in grades 5-8 to make learning how to code fun and engaging. 

Each fall and spring, teams meet for about two hours per week in eight “regular season” sessions, using Google’s CS First curriculum, before embarking on the postseason competition. 

Coders’ work is scored by YCL staff and they can track their progress on the league’s site. Prizes — including computers and cash — are awarded to coders and teams based on technical merit, community voting, regular season scoring, and improvement. 

“Whenever you hear your group name being called… it’s still this exhilarating rush like the first year we had it,” said Shyla Skeen, one of Britt’s teammates at Scott County Central School. “If someone’s an awesome coder, and they get first place, they could win a lot of money. That can help a family if they’re struggling. They’re giving you money for your time if you put work and effort into it.”

And the league provides support to schools with stipends and training for teachers, in addition to the prizes for coders. At Scott County, the presence of YCL created a natural feeder program for the high school’s robotics club.

“This has offered them a space to be who they are, to find something that they enjoy,” said Cristy Crites, Britt and Skeen’s coach at Scott County.

"Coding has been a part of what’s helped me find out who I am."

Shyla Skeen, Scott County Central School

“If you’d have told me 10 years ago that I’d be doing robots and coding, I would have laughed at you so hard,” said Crites, a longtime art teacher, who connected with Codefi to bring YCL to her school. “But I think that the need is there. And I think what [Codefi] is doing, the idea that they have is incredible, especially for a low-income school like ours, you know, that those opportunities just do not exist from kindergarten through 12th grade.” 

One school’s story

Scott County Central School has about 300 students from pre-kindergarten through 12th grade. 

As a small school in a rural community — its campus is surrounded by fields — extra-curricular opportunities are limited, particularly before students reach high school. Its basketball program, which has more state championships than any other Missouri school, receives most of the attention.

“Our school is known for basketball, not robotics, not coding — basketball,” Skeen said. “I think it’s awesome having certain kids from our school, a tiny school in the middle of fields, winning thousands of dollars almost every year. I find it awesome how our school has offered that experience.”

The arrival of Youth Coding League for middle and junior high students suddenly gave kids less interested in basketball something totally different to explore.

“I played basketball but I wasn’t really that interested in it, so I wanted to try something different, and coding has opened up a lot of new opportunities for me,” said Bailey Harper, a rising eighth-grader on the YCL team. “I’ve won a lot of prizes and learned a lot.”

Participation has been consistent, Crites said, with close to 20 students usually coming out for the younger age group and close to half of that for the older group at the start of each year. Scott County’s all-girls team competing in the playoffs was unique but also speaks to YCL’s popularity among boys and girls, who participate in equal numbers league-wide.

Crites has also noticed that the students who stick with the program become more confident learners — more outgoing, more outspoken, more willing to go outside their comfort zones.

“With Bailey, her first year in Youth Coding League, she didn’t do as well as she wanted, but the next year she got my most improved award because, I mean, that girl came back and she came back with a vengeance,” Crites said. “She knew what she was doing and she was determined. She has a voice … if she has an opinion or an idea, she’s not afraid to throw it out there.

“She has done a complete turnabout compared to before Youth Coding League. And, honestly, knowing her as well as I do, I don’t think she’d be the person she is now if we’d not given her that opportunity.”

Students see coding as a future

The Youth Coding League experience has already changed how Britt, Harper, and Skeen are thinking about their futures.

“I’m not going to major in coding but I might minor in computer science,” Harper said. “It’s definitely in the future for every job.” 

Skeen said that she wants to help people in her career and thinks coding could play a part in that.

“Coding has been a part of what’s helped me find out who I am,” Skeen said.

Britt, a rising ninth-grader who also plays basketball, said she will miss her YCL team as a high schooler. Its impact on her is already clear. 

“Now, in the future, I’m thinking about when I’m in college, that I’m going to do a programming career,” said Britt.

“My dad, he really wants me to work toward this, so he kept pushing me through and in the end I got first place again,” Britt said. “All you have to do is have a strong mindset.”

It doesn’t stop here.

At the Center on Rural Innovation, we are working with rural communities across the country to help position them to thrive in the 21st-century digital economy. To learn more about our work in this space, be sure to check out our blog and sign up for our newsletter