LaunchCode Miami and Miami Dade College offer free computer science course that can open doors to new careers

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Founder Jim McKelvey welcomes prospective students of CS50xMiami. All photos courtesy The Idea Center at MDC.

CS50x Miami, Harvard University’s online introduction to computer science class, will be offered free and with in-person instruction through a partnership between The Idea Center, the innovation and entrepreneurship hub at Miami Dade College, and LaunchCode, a job placement nonprofit, beginning June 13. Both organizations are supported by Knight Foundation.

The 20-week course was introduced at an event at The Idea Center at Miami Dade College last Wednesday, with Jim McKelvey, founder of LaunchCode; Sari Kulthm, lead instructor and program manager for CS50x Miami; and, via remote video, Yulan Lin, a data analyst from NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, who discussed her  experiences with coding and her work at the center.

Speaking before a room of about 100 students and prospective students, McKelvey, also co-founder of the payments company Square, framed his remarks by discussing the labor market and the educational programs needed to supply business with the the trained workers they need. He then didn’t spend much time in niceties, speaking instead forcefully about a great opportunity — but also a challenge.

“The one question that I always get about this is: Is this too good to be true? Is there a catch here? Is there something that you’re not explaining? Well, almost. It is almost too good to be true,” he said. “The fact that they are making this available for free is mind-blowing. The Harvard team is incredibly generous. The Knight Foundation and Miami Dade College, who are sponsoring this class so it doesn’t cost you a penny, they are incredibly generous. So yes, it’s almost too good to be true — but for the fact that they don’t slow this down for you.”

This course is for Harvard students, McKelvey said, “and probably they’re doing nothing but taking classes. They are probably not holding down jobs. Some of you guys are holding down jobs? Doing other stuff? Maybe have a family, a couple of kids? There are disadvantages that you have that they don’t have, and they are not slowing this down for you. This class moves at a breakneck pace. There are times when it’s best to run, and there are times when it’s good to rest. This is a time to run.”

Kulthm, who will be the lead instructor of CS50x Miami, said, it “only takes one thing from you: commitment. When you are committed and put the time and effort, it will make it doable. We’re here to support you. Prepare your schedule, prepare your life for the next 20 weeks.”

He spoke about some of the subjects in the course — such as encryption, gaming, digital image-processing, web pages and data structure — but emphasized that “this is not just a regular coding class.  The important thing here is to get you thinking as a programmer, learning how to think logically and learning algorithms.”

There will be lectures twice a week, Monday and Wednesday, two and a half hours each. The first hour will be taught by a professor from Harvard, while Kulthm will teach the following hour and a half at The Idea Center. There is also a one- to two-hour lab per week.

CS50x Miami was first offered at The Idea Center last year. This is the fifth session. According to Matt Mawhinney, LaunchCode’s South Florida community manager, “nearly 350” students have gone through the program.  He also noted that while “in conjunction with our partners at Miami Dade College, we’ve experimented with different funding models and price points, now, and going forward, the class will be fully free and open to the public.” Last semester the course was $699 for the public and $399 for Miami Dade College students, he said.

For all the repetition, perhaps because of it, after awhile, certain terms—new economy, technology, education, life-changing opportunities – begin to lose their power.  

Then you hear Allison Cammack, who emceed the event, tell her story. The course proved a life-changing experience. A practicing attorney doing commercial litigation, Cammack heard McKelvey speak at Start-Up City in March last year, then she left her law firm and took CS50x Miami.

She is now working at Kairos, a Miami-based human analytics company, and also volunteers for LaunchCode.

“I was at a point in my life where I was searching for something more meaningful, something that I could look back on my life and feel like I’ve contributed something more to the world, but I didn’t know what it was,” she said. “Hearing how Jim described CS50x and the person who would benefit from that class, the hairs on my arms stood up. I thought, ‘He’s describing me.’ And I thought that maybe this might be my way to see if I could be part of building something that really is going to make people's lives better.”

“As hard as it was, I loved the rewarding feeling when you get something to work and I knew all that perseverance paid off,” said Cammack. “It’s such a wonderful experience to be part of this and be a part of building the tech community in Miami. It’s so open here. Everybody can get in the Miami tech scene on the ground floor right now and make a huge contribution.”

To register for the 20-week course, go to CS50xMiami.com. Deadline for registration is Sunday, June 5.  After filling out the application, prospective students must complete a 15-question, 30-minute problem-solving assessment. Students will need access to a laptop to participate in the course, which has slots for 130 students.

Fernando González is a Miami-based arts and culture writer. He can be reached via email at [email protected].

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