By Sean Smith
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer
Sitting in his West Baltimore home, high school senior Nicholas Wilkins pieces together a variety of computer components he ordered from Amazon and Newegg. But the Digital Harbor High School student isn’t just tinkering with the components – he is actually building a computer from scratch.
The 18-year-old standout now works as a programming intern for the Baltimore-based gaming company Sparkypants while he finishes his final year of high school. He works directly with the company’s user interface team, developing several important aspects to the company’s video games.
He got the position through the Prodigy Program being offered by Code in the Schools, a local non-profit organization dedicated to giving youth of all ages in the city an opportunity to learn various types of computer programming skills.
Wilkins, who currently plans to attend Towson University in the fall, decided to take a shot and see if he could get into the program after being handed a flier by his AP programmer teacher at Digital Harbor, a magnet school is Baltimore’s Federal Hill neighborhood.
“Things have gone really, really well this year,” said Gabriel Denis, the organization’s program coordinator. “That’s owing a lot to the fact that these students are mind bogglingly good.”
The Prodigy Program, which will start its second year this summer, is tailored specifically for rising seniors.
The students are put through an intensive boot camp over the summer where they are taught basic programming concepts. The camp took place at Betamore, a non-profit in Baltimore dedicated to educating and developing entrepreneurs and preparing them to work with the 21st century economy.
After the boot camp the kids are placed with other Baltimore programming companies like Sparkypants for their internships. Currently, only four companies are offering the internship positions, but the number is expected to grow as the program does.
Wilkins’ prior knowledge and ability awed Denis and other instructors. Along with the custom computer he built, Wilkins was also able to build a fully functional website from the ground up.
Having experienced a wildly successful first year, the staff at Code in the Schools is looking towards program expansion in the future.
This year’s Prodigy class holds only four students who stood out to the teachers at their high schools. The program staff looked for kids who many perceived as having high achievement potential and a lot of talent.
Moving forward, however, the program wants to eventually develop students who are not necessarily high achievers. This way, Denis said more kids will have an opportunity to learn skills that are not a part of normal public school curriculum.
Code in the Schools has partnered with the Baltimore City government to give more kids like Wilkins an opportunity to enter the program.
Next year’s applicants will be able to apply through the city government’s Office of Youth Works, which helps kids ages 14 to 21 find work and possible careers in fields that match their interests and aspirations. The Prodigy Program would be open to those who are at least 17.
While the new students are flooding in looking for new internships, Wilkins hopes to retain his job. He said he chose Towson so he could continue working with Sparkypants while earning his degree.
Working with the gaming company has been fun for Wilkins, but his goals reach further than the video gaming world. He hopes to help companies like Google develop software that improves society, such as the driverless car project that is currently under development at the company.
While not exactly certain what direction he will go in, one thing remains certain.“I just want to be a programmer,” Wilkins said.