Breaking into tech can be hard.
It can be even more difficult if you are like Ellis Wyms, who grew up in Indianola, Mississippi, a city in which 30 percent of the population sits at or below the poverty line and median household income is only $26,479.
But, thanks to the game of football, Wyms was able to earn a scholarship to Mississippi State, where he would go on to rack up 120 tackles before being drafted in the sixth round of the 2001 NFL Draft by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.
An eight-year NFL veteran with the Buccaneers, Seahawks, and Vikings, Wyms won a Super Bowl with the Bucs in 2003.
Eight years removed from professional football, Wyms is now tackling another project that he’s equally passionate about: empowering youth through computer science.
“When you grow up in that type of environment, you just don’t have resources. There are not a lot of businesses, and educational opportunities are limited. I wanted to provide educational opportunities to communities that needed it the most.”
These opportunities originally started out as fitness-focused ones in which Wyms worked with Microsoft to get Xbox Kinects into community centers. Realizing that it is hard for kids — and adults — to prioritize fitness when they are just figuring out where their next meal will come from, Wyms realized he could make a greater impact by focusing on early education.
“I wanted to develop a program that could ultimately drive young people toward better career and economic opportunities, and could give them value in the new economy. Today, we have the opportunity to take young people growing up in poor or poverty-stricken environments, and through access to the Internet and advancements in technology, connect them to opportunities that they may have never had before.”
The goal? Being able to shape the perspectives of the children who grow up in communities like Indianola and enable them to believe that they could have any type of career.
With his goal set, Wyms founded Athletes for Computer Science (AFCS), a nonprofit that introduces the fundamentals of computer science to elementary school-aged children. As a way to drive additional interest and excitement, Wyms engages professional athletes who share an interest in computer science and STEM learning to help students as part of their ongoing lessons.
In an economy where skills are at a premium and nearly every industry is being impacted by technology, Wyms see computer science as a necessity when it comes to a successful trajectory.
“The only way you get out of poverty is to learn how to participate in the economy. You can only participate if you have a skill set that’s valuable. That’s kind of the message we want to drive home.”
In the first year of the program alone, AFCS has worked with more 500 kids from second grade to sixth grade, who have written over 100,000 lines of code. AFCS’ program has been implemented across eight schools in four different states through online classes using curriculum developed by Code.org, and helps prepare classroom teachers to support children as they go through curriculum modules.
Going into its second year, Wyms hopes to see AFCS expand to more schools across the country, as well as get more athletes involved to provide inspiration and mentorship to the participating kids.
“Early on, it was about proving the model of marrying athletic influence to a learning opportunity tied to computer science education. Now, it’s about reaching as many children as possible, particularly those living in more under-resourced communities.”
With ongoing conversations between Wyms, and NFL players and teams, the opportunity to have representation from all 32 of the NFL teams is something that Wyms one day hopes becomes a reality. NFL Pro-Bowler Warrick Dunn and two-time Super Bowl Champion Booger McFarland have been early adopters of AFCS.
“I was able to join a class and encourage kids from my hometown of Baton Rouge to learn computer science – I know how important computer science education will be to their future,” said Dunn. “The AFCS platform gives me a meaningful way to connect with youth and encourage them to learn a skill that will absolutely be an asset to them when they grow to be adults.”
As AFCS brings computer science to more schools and students, Wyms has been excited to see how enthusiastic the students have been about STEM learning.
“It’s been amazing to see how engaged the kids are with the curriculum. We are helping fulfill a need in many school districts, and also creating an enthusiasm for learning that teachers and administrators love to see from their students.”
While there is still great opportunity to grow AFCS, there is no doubt that when it comes to impact, Ellis Wyms shows that he too is #MoreThanAnAthlete.