Collaborative Coding

Education and workforce relationship drives nontraditional STEM education at DeltaV Code School

Sihem Azibi will always remember the night she and fellow DeltaV Code School students stayed up past midnight polishing their project and presentation that was due to be presented to recruiters and local companies later that day. Everyone was choosing to be there, and there was a shared goal.

“It was a project that everybody was involved in, and [so] if it’s not good, it’s not good for all of us. If it’s good, it’s good for all of us,” Azibi said. “I was on a great team, we were more friends than classmates.”

DeltaV instructor Keith Dahlby’s favorite stories include students collaborating on a computer program that played aloud a compilation of quips, noises and one-liners he had made throughout the course. 

Another one that sticks in his mind is the first time students from the first cohort returned to DeltaV since completing their coursework and starting new jobs.

“I just sat down with them beforehand, just chitchatting, ‘Hey, how’s work going?’ And I’m talking to folks [who] sound like they’ve been in the industry for three years,” he said. “They’re talking in detail and talking about the trade-offs that they’re dealing with at work, all the things that they’re exploring and stuff that I’ve never even heard of. Seeing them go from, like zero, no prior professional context, plus a handful of months with me, plus a handful of months in the industry, and they just fit right in.” 

Just like Dahlby said, at DeltaV, students can go from having no previous experience in information technology to job-ready professionals in a matter of months with full-time boot camp-style courses in software development, digital marketing, computer operations, and administration and cybersecurity.

Cedar Rapids nonprofit the New Bohemian Innovation Collaborative, or NewBoCo, launched DeltaV five years ago in 2017 as an alternative education model to lower the barrier to entry for adult career changers interested in high-demand computer science and IT jobs. 

As a past executive for several technology companies, NewBoCo Executive Director Aaron Horn said finding tech talent was a challenge before the pandemic, and he has found a degree isn’t always a necessary requirement of a fit hire.

“I’ve had many people who have had some sort of certification or, honestly, they never went to college, because they just dove right in with tinkering with computers and networking and things like that on their own, and the amount of knowledge and experience they have doing that is exactly what I’m looking for,” Horn said. 

When going back to school to get a two- or four-year degree isn’t feasible, he said DeltaV is designed to be the opportunity for them.

NewBoCo was also seeing the workforce needs and anticipated how a lack of technology professionals could affect startup development and innovation. Horn said a shift toward web-based programming and cloud capabilities is a driving factor in the number of open positions in IT and computer science roles.

Demand isn’t set to slow down, either — long-term projections from Iowa Workforce Development show the state having 455 annual openings for software developers and 500 annually for computer user support specialists. 

Local employers have been vocal about their needs since DeltaV started, communicating the types of positions they had open and the skills they wanted in candidates. In January and February 2022, about 12% of the nearly 11,000 unique job postings for computer and mathematical operations occupations were in the Cedar Rapids metro area. Des Moines made up close to half of the postings.

About one-third of the postings didn’t have an education requirement listed and a plurality of the postings, 43%, didn’t list a previous experience requirement.

So far, 102 students have completed coursework at DeltaV, and given the present and future need for technology workers, growing connections between education and workforce and the change in the way employees work, nontraditional education is taking shape as another arm of the state’s education landscape.

Dan Tuuri, center, is a DeltaV instructor for cybersecurity courses, which were introduced earlier this year. Photo by Duane Tinkey

The Philosophy of DeltaV

Azibi is originally from Algeria, where she studied computer science and graduated with a master’s degree in 2010. Other jobs and her move to the U.S. to join her husband in 2013 delayed her working in the field she saw as “the future,” however. 

But she worked her way back to it. Fluent in French and Arabic, she added English to that list once in America and worked in retail and then as a school bus driver. 

“I was working two hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon. My kids were very young, and I didn’t want to get a full-time job when it was going to be hard for me to do both being a mom and work,” she said. “But then when I heard about DeltaV, I was like, ‘That’s the opportunity. That’s what I’m looking for,’ and when I started I felt like it was what I wanted.”

Now a software developer for Iowa-based transportation service LimoLink, Azibi said compared with DeltaV’s hands-on approach, her computer science education in the 2000s was “more theory than practice.”

“[At] DeltaV you’re practicing in real time. That helps a lot; it’s like you’re doing a job,” she said.

Dahlby, who has taught software development courses at DeltaV since its launch, also describes the boot camp as a job, and said it requires students to approach it like one.

“[It’s] definitely the hardest thing most of the students have done to this point in their life.”

Courses are offered during the day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. or on nights and weekends for students also working full time. Either way, Dahlby said the students who put more into the courses get the most out of them.

In turn, the courses give back to students an education that sets them up for an entry-level position and to continue learning on the job. 

“DeltaV is very much focused on these specific skills that most jobs are wanting out of their new hires on day one, so that’s really where we optimize,” he said.

The code school’s curricula primarily come from the Seattle-based computer training school Code Fellows.

“It’s not a replacement” for a traditional college education, Dahlby said, but instead of learning more of the theory behind the work, students spend more time practicing and preparing for their job search.

Cohorts at DeltaV don’t exceed 12 students, encouraging the groups to become a community and a team that collaborates and learns from each other. 

Dahlby shared what this looks like from the instructor’s perspective: “You have a question? Ask a peer, look at it together,” he said. “If you can’t figure it out, grab a TA, the three of you all look at it together [and] see if you can’t figure it out. If you can’t figure it out, all of you come to the instructor and say, ‘Hey, we’re all stuck.’ Now we’ve got four people potentially learning rather than one.”

He said employers have taken notice of the career readiness of DeltaV hires, feeding the realization among more companies that for some of their positions, they’re looking for employees with a certain skill set, regardless of how long they studied. 

The accelerated pace of the course gets students into the workforce sooner and allows them to grow within the companies they join. 

“Once they come out of [DeltaV], they know that they’re going to work on the help desk and grow up the ranks through Involta and have an IT career,” said Sue Sedrel, vice president of human resources at Cedar Rapids-based Involta.

Naturally, DeltaV’s model isn’t for everyone. Horn said he encourages high school students to look at degree programs, and some people who do the introductory course find that the material or the pace of the courses aren’t for them.

He said the conversation isn’t about there being a right or wrong path to obtaining an education in computer science and IT fields but about the fact that there needs to be multiple paths that serve the needs of individuals at different stages of life.

As NewBoCo expands its services to at least three new communities in 2022, Horn said DeltaV can be an opportunity for more people at that different stage. 

“That’s why we work really well with community colleges, because the folks that are interested in a boot camp-style [education] are not the folks that are going for a two- or four-year degree,” he said.

Some say with DeltaV and other resources, Iowa has started to navigate its future in tech education with many conversations and changes still ahead.

Expanding Hands-on Learning Beyond “Pockets” of the State

The pandemic put workforce needs at or near the top of concerns for employers, but the relationship between workforce and education was growing closer before 2020.

DeltaV as well as other programs including Iowa BIG in the Cedar Rapids area, Pi515, and the Iowa Governor’s STEM Advisory Council’s STEM BEST and teacher externship programs that weren’t in existence 10 years ago are evidence of the changes in how workforce and education interact.

Patrick Donovan is the board president of Iowa Technology and Education Connection, which supports teachers in using technology in their classrooms, and a technology integrationist for Nevada Community School District. 

He said that one of the driving reasons to foster stronger connections between students, teachers and businesses is the rapid evolution of jobs that require digital and technical skills and the increasing understanding that learning them requires more hands-on practice and exposing students to potential careers.

“We constantly see statistics about how many jobs our students will have that have not yet been created; how it’s constantly changing and evolving over time; how students may not just have one job for their whole career. … That’s different than in the past with their parents’ or grandparents’ experience [and] what the schools used to set them up for,” he said.

With that shift, school districts have become testing grounds for concepts like work-based and project-based learning.

“There’s a lot of experimentation happening right now, and that’s probably why we hear a lot of it because there are schools that are trying things, and then their models get promoted as examples for others to try out and kind of tweak from,” said Samantha Dahlby, director of K-12 education at NewBoCo.

It’s a starting point for Iowa, Donovan said, but the difference he’s seen in resources and opportunities depending on locations signals that the benefits of the experiments aren’t yet statewide. 

“It’s not systemic, so it’s in pockets,” he said.

Integrating the learning that will prepare students for future jobs means introducing a framework and philosophy that functions within the structure of K-12 education and classrooms. 

Samantha Dahlby said no matter their age, engaging activities or projects naturally appeals to “a broader set” of students and personalities because they have “a little bit of control” in how they engage and learn. 

With each student having a unique experience, being allowed to share their different perspectives can teach that there is more than one way to do something right, she said. 

DeltaV’s model offers some insight into translating that. When students present projects, they focus more on acknowledging their challenges and discussing what they learned from getting something not quite right.

“What I see in students that get to experience more of the acceptable failure style of learning is that they are more willing to take risks and ask questions and try new things that then get new results,” Samantha Dahlby said. “That’s where we also hear the buzzword of innovation in the work world. And if we can’t allow a space to be innovative and try things early on, it’s harder to develop that as an adult. Not impossible, but it does take some rewiring.”

But “it’s hard to switch [to] that model” in K-12 classrooms because teachers have to assess if students met the requirements — if they learned.

“That’s where this barrier with traditional education is, is that how do you assess a failure that is a good failure?” she said.

Even with standards-based grading that accounts for progress, Samantha Dahlby said students still may find it too abstract and struggle to see how it relates to their learning.

Beyond curriculum, Donovan said there are additional systematic changes K-12 schools need in order to scale hands-on tech education on a statewide scale, namely qualified teachers and equal access to resources in urban and rural areas.

He said the law passed in 2020 requiring schools to offer a computer science curriculum may put more strain on small school districts to find or train the educators to teach it.

“[Small schools are] looking for an all-science person … to teach the biology classes, the chemistry classes and the physics classes. And if you’re going to ask them to add on a computer science course on that, there’s not a lot of science teachers that are well versed in all those areas,” he said.

There are online training opportunities for teachers such as Project Lead the Way that allow them to train in one course, but Donovan said being properly trained becomes more complicated as each district can decide to offer computer science in a different way.

Donovan has been a science teacher and technology administrator in Iowa for more than 20 years and said he’s taught in classrooms that were only 20 miles apart but “varied very greatly” in access to resources.

While online classroom resources are accessible across schools and pandemic relief funding helped schools shore up their lack of devices or internet access, work-based learning requires businesses within reach offering the experience.

In addition to the top needs of staffing, resource access and continued funding, Donovan said partnerships between K-12 schools and businesses or nonprofits like NewBoCo are another key component to developing an education that prepares students for the jobs and world of work they will encounter.

“Schools are still changing to meet the current demands, but that’s something that may not happen quickly,” he said. “So the more that they can work with others who may have access to resources, or opportunities for students to learn, I think it’d be better for students — and especially in Iowa, where we may not have as many of those resources available to us as they do in other states or locations.”