Duke University undergrads spend an epic summer with Code+ and Adobe

In Duke University’s Code+ summer program with Adobe, students learn programming languages, professional tools, and are mentored by tech pros in the industry.

Photo of Duke University campus

On July 30 and July 31, 2020 dozens of Duke University undergrads logged onto Zoom to show what they had achieved throughout the summer. And what they shared was astounding. They spent the previous 10 weeks not on vacation, but developing apps — working in small teams to build groundbreaking solutions to real-world challenges, for actual clients: A virtual tour of the Duke Basketball Museum. A mobile guide to the Duke Lemur Center. A way to donate to a food bank for students in need. And many more.

All of these projects came out of a summer program called Code+, which gives students an intense and positive coding experience. Not only do they learn computer programming languages and use professional tools of the trade, students also learn how to work as a team. Along the way, they receive mentorship from tech professionals both at Duke and in the industry, which includes sponsors such as Adobe.

“We look for promising young students who don’t already have significant exposure to tech” says Jen Vizas, director of Projects, Service Adoption & Engagement (PACE) in the Office of IT at Duke University.

The program is inclusive. More than half of the participants this year were female, and a large majority were Asian American, African American, or Hispanic. The aim is to boost participants’ confidence and give them a meaningful experience they can put on their resumes. For first and second-year undergraduate students, gathering those ingredients is the first step of a successful journey.

“Students don’t often realize that software development is more than coding — 80 percent of the work is collaboration and communication with your team and your clients,” says Vizas. “We started Code+ to give undergraduates a chance to develop a range of practical skills and get the experience they need to get an internship.”

Long known for academic excellence, Duke University understands the importance of going beyond theory and putting curriculum into practice. Programs such as Code+ play an important role in making that happen. There is strong support for professional tools and technologies that enable collaboration and advanced work, including providing access to Adobe Creative Cloud to all students, faculty, and staff. As an Adobe Creative Campus, Duke University is taking big steps toward building digital literacy and giving students an edge going into the workforce.

“It is important to teach students practical skills, but that’s only half the equation,” says Tracy Futhey, vice president and CIO at Duke University. “They also need to learn how to use digital tools to express their interests and accomplish their goals, whether developing an application, designing a website, building a brand, or simply sharing an idea.”

The goal is to make technology — and careers in technology — more accessible for all students, not just a privileged few. That’s a goal the university is eager to keep investing in.

“Technology is now part of all aspects of teaching and learning at Duke, from STEM (science, tech, engineering, and math) fields to the arts, humanities, and medicine,” says Futhey. “Programs like Code+ remove barriers to digital literacy and create a competitive advantage — not only for students but for the university as a whole.”

Code+ adapts, goes virtual during COVID-19

Normally, Code+ is an intense, in-person experience, bringing students together for 40 hours a week to develop their apps. But 2020 was anything but normal. The program had to adapt — finding ways to keep students, mentors, stakeholders, and sponsors connected amidst a global pandemic.

“The last thing we wanted to do was let down the students,” says Vizas. “We needed to find a way to mimic the intensity and collaboration that happens when people work in a room together for eight hours a day.”

That involved some team building and social activities online, with persistent Zoom spaces to keep teams connected all day. Vizas also tapped into former Code+ students to act as team leads and provide this year’s participants guidance on what to expect and how to make the most of the experience. The preparations worked. Students didn’t miss a beat, and the virtual setting may have even strengthened students’ bonds with mentors and sponsors.

“What’s amazing is that companies like Adobe are really invested in student success and want to see them learn and grow,” Vizas says. “Engagement actually increased this year because we were all in the same boat with COVID-19. In particular, Adobe really brought its sponsorship to a new level and set a high bar for next year’s sponsors.”

Sponsors are critical to the Code+ program because they give students a perspective from industry professionals who work on the cutting edge of technology. Mentors from within Duke are even more important, and the experience is just as rewarding for them as it is for students.

“In the Office of IT, we don’t usually have direct exposure to students,” says Vizas. “But Code+ allows us to make an impact on students, and that has lit a spark in many of us.”

Zoom meeting at Duke University

2020 Code+ Cohort

Students rise to the challenge, supported by mentors

One staff member who is energized by Code+ is Hugh Thomas, a mobile app developer in the Office of IT and adjunct faculty member in computer science. Thomas has been involved with the program since the beginning. As team lead for mobile projects, he helps teach students programming fundamentals using languages such as Swift, Ruby on Rails, and Python and provides guidance on how to use applications such as Adobe Photoshop, Adobe XD, and Adobe Premiere Pro. Then he sets them loose on a problem to solve.

“In 2018, we had a single team of six undergraduates, who wrote an app to help people find and pay for parking on the Duke campus,” says Thomas. “Their product and presentation was so good, the administration decided to fund the project — and now the Park Duke app is available for download. Seeing the students take ownership was personally very rewarding.”

Code+ expanded to seven teams in 2019 and nine teams in 2020, with many of the projects being funded for full development and release. Students continue to raise the bar on what can be achieved in 10 weeks. This year, two teams ventured into an entirely new set of technologies — augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and immersive experiences. Neither Thomas nor the students had any experience in this area, but that didn’t hold them back.

“The Blue Devils have a very nice basketball facility and museum, and the athletics department wanted a way for people to experience it virtually — especially during the pandemic,” he says. “The students used Adobe Dimension, Adobe Aero, Photoshop, XD, Illustrator, and other tools to create a 360-degree virtual tour, so the phone becomes your window into the space.”

The augmented reality app lets people read about the exhibits in the museum, watch player highlights, shoot hoops, and even put themselves in the center of the action on the basketball court. During the pandemic, the app has sparked the imaginations of stakeholders across campus and now Duke is considering how to use the students’ work to create virtual tours of other university landmarks, including the chapel, engineering facilities, and more.

Empowering students to design their own futures

Another Code+ team used AR/VR technology to create a visitors’ app for the Duke Lemur Center, a non-invasive research center that houses the most diverse population of lemurs in the world, outside of Madagascar. The center wanted to provide a virtual guided tour for both in-person and remote visits — especially important this year, because the facility has been closed to visitors.

Students came up with a fun, engaging experience that walks people through the facility, providing AR exhibits and Snapchat-like filters that allow people to see what they would look like as different types of lemurs. One of the most impressive features? A 3D virtual lemur that leaps through the air, designed and developed from scratch — quite a feat, considering all the students were new to tools such as Adobe Dimension.

Bri Butler was one of the students on that team. “The experience of collaborating with a team to deliver a project to an actual client — the Duke Lemur Center — was incredibly cool,” says Butler. “And it gave me something amazing to put on my resume — something I can talk about in detail when I apply for internships.”

When Butler initially heard about Code+, she was struggling with the prospect of securing an internship.

“I’d never done a technical interview, and I didn’t know what to expect,” Butler says. “But after experiencing Code+ and being given the opportunity to use advanced solutions and apps, I realized I could hold my own. I now go into those more technical interviews with confidence. I just accepted an internship for next summer with Amazon.”

Code+ has also helped Butler build a network of female STEM scholars across Duke — a community she can reach out to with questions or tap into for ideas. That’s why she doesn’t hesitate to encourage other students to participate. It’s a powerful way to get real-world experience, develop practical skills with industry tools, strengthen her resume, and find other students who share her interests — all essential factors in starting a successful career.

Students and sponsors agree: Code+ is a summer well-spent

Butler is not alone in her enthusiasm for Code+. At the end of the summer, Vizas and her team asked all the students who participated this year for their feedback.

“Every student responded to our survey, and we’re very pleased with the results,” says Vizas. “93 percent of them said the Code+ experience will help them get an industry internship, and 100 percent will recommend the program to their fellow students.”

It’s rewarding not only for the students, but for the mentors and sponsors who get involved.

“It has been impressive and humbling to see what a team of enthusiastic students can accomplish over a ten-week summer program,” says Futhey. “The creativity that students brought to these projects was inspired by their imagination and powered by the digital tools they have access to.”

The ability to make a difference in the lives of young people and set them on a course for academic and professional success is powerful and inspiring. And the projects students tackle are bringing real value into the world. Clearly a great way to spend part of a summer.

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