A New College Program Inspired by Coding Bootcamps, Informed by Liberal Arts

Liberal-arts colleges have long told students that they can major in whatever they want and still go on to a solid, and even lucrative, profession. After all, plenty of English majors become lawyers and doctors. But that hasn’t been as true for digital tech fields like coding, says Kristen Eshleman, director of digital innovation initiatives at Davidson College.

Now Davidson is working to change that, for its students and for those at other liberal-arts colleges around the country. This summer the college piloted a program in San Francisco, in a facility just down the street from offices of Twitter and Uber, inspired by the many commercial coding bootcamps that have emerged in recent years. But the Davidson program is aiming to add elements of liberal-arts teaching that it is known for—and offer college credit as well.

About 30 students, most from Davidson but a few from five partner colleges including Mount Holyoke College—participated in the six-week program this summer. Like many bootcamps, classes ran from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays. One of the program’s instructors, in fact, had experience teaching for a commercial coding bootcamp. But the program also included lessons on soft skills like public speaking and working in teams.

“What students and alumni were asking us was, ‘Is there a way for them to gain the technical vertical skills and the language and the networks—all the sort of fluency of being in tech?’” says Eshleman.

Some graduates were attending high-priced bootcamps after graduating from Davidson, she says, which can cost upwards of $20,000. But not everyone can afford that option.

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“The main pitch is that we think a program like this can make it much easier for students to do the translation [from liberal arts to tech] that they find difficult to do through a normal four-year experience,” she adds.

Jeriel Adarquah-Yiadom, a sophomore at Davidson and a defensive end on the college’s football team, was one of the students in the pilot. He arrived at the college with plans to major in physics, but after taking a computer-science course, he started thinking of working toward a career in tech. When he heard of the summer program in San Francisco, he saw it as a way to get a feel for what it would be like to work in Silicon Valley to see if he liked it. “One of the major factors was its location,” he says.

The program took advantage of its proximity to the tech industry, offering field trips to companies including Slack and LinkedIn.

From the beginning, Adarquah-Yiadom says, the vibe in the classroom was different than his campus classes. “It was the stark opposite of the Davidson experience,” he says. “There was less of a penalty for being wrong” during class discussions.

The lead instructor, he says, made it clear from the beginning that he didn’t know everything, and that he himself expended effort to continually improve his skills to keep up with a fast-changing industry. “He would learn a new thing every week, and he would come back and report about it to us. That was really key to embrace the experience,” says Adarquah-Yiadom.

As administrators at Davidson reviewed the pilot after it was over, they heard the same refrain from many of the students.

“Learning to learn was the biggest outcome for them,” says Eshleman. The goal was not to turn the students into hard-core coders—something impossible to do in just a few weeks anyway—but to introduce them to the variety of jobs at software companies, like project managers and user-experience designers, that they might not even have known about. That focus on jobs that surround coding inspired the project’s name, Adjacent Academies.

Scaling Up

To get the program off the ground quickly, Davidson teamed up with Entangled Group, an unusual company that does a mix of consulting work and investing in edtech ventures. The company decided to put resources into the project as part of a division of the company that incubates ideas that might later be spun out into companies.

Some colleges have partnered with bootcamp providers to jointly offer programs, but Davidson didn’t find that a good fit, says Anh M. Nguyen, an Entangled employee who is CEO of the Adjacent Academies effort. “They felt that [bootcamps] weren’t really looking to partner, they were looking to replace higher education,” says Nguyen.

“At the highest level we want [students] to walk away with a real foundational technical competence,” she adds. “We want them to walk away with more soft skills.”

The plan now is to expand the project from a summer pilot to a semester-long experience, similar to a study-abroad program as far as how the college accounts for it. Students will still pay tuition to Davidson, but they will attend the intensive program in San Francisco for a semester and receive a semester’s worth of college credit.

Davidson will try the semester-long version this spring, which will involve professors from its campus who will fly out for some classes and Skype in for others.

Shireen Campbell, chair of Davidson’s English department, is one of the professors who will teach in the program in the spring, leading a course called Science Fiction & Technology. The reading list will include William Gibson’s “Neuromancer” and a dystopian short story by George Saunders called “Jon.” Students will use the works as a jumping-off point to discuss the ethics of the tech industry and the social impacts of digital technology.

Does she worry that the bootcamp format isn’t as academically rigorous as other Davidson programs? “This is a far more vetted program for me than a lot of study-abroad programs that our students go on,” as far as semester design, she says, noting that she believes those overseas experiences are definitely worth the credit.

“Students come here and they are terrified that they won’t get a job when they leave,” she says. “They’re increasingly clumping into a few fields that they feel have practical career possibilities. I want this to be one.”

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