Space & Innovation

Tackling Tech’s Diversity Problem Through Computer Science

A collection of programs in Oakland are making computer science education part of the core curriculum in schools with mostly non-white students.

<p>Students at West Oakland Middle School learning to code during Computer Science Education Week</p>

"I like to code, it's just really fun and interesting," enthused Amaya, a seventh-grader at West Oakland Middle School in California. "In the future, computer science might help me with my career and give me multiple options for what I want to do for my job. I might want to be a software engineer... or a chemist!"

Not many middle schoolers will tell you that they want to be a software engineer when they grow up, but Amaya has been taking computer science classes for a while now.

Through partnerships and grants from Code.org, a nonprofit aiming to increase representation of women and minorities in the tech sector, and Salesforce.org, the philanthropic branch of the San Francisco tech giant, the Oakland Unified School District (OUSD) offers computer science classes in all of its schools.

Earlier this week at West Oakland Middle School, nearly a hundred students sat in a room together typing code into handheld Pocket Chip computers, the room humming with excited chatter. The event was put on by Salesforce as part of Computer Science Education Week, in which districts nationwide host events encouraging students to take an active interest in computer science. As the kids quickly punched numbers and symbols into their devices to create and program a simple computer game, there was an air of electricity you wouldn't expect to find in a typical middle-school classroom.

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"We know students love these courses. It engages their brain in different ways and they get excited about computer science in ways they don't about an algebra class or another class," Devin Dillon, Deputy Superintendent of Oakland Unified School District, told Seeker. "We've seen over a 400 percent increase in computer science course offerings in just one year, so we've really scaled this up quickly, thanks to making it a district priority."

This initiative matters in a district like OUSD, where approximately 88.2 percent of the students are non-white. People of color are largely underrepresented in the tech industry - a discouraging fact when you consider that Oakland is located mere miles from some of the world's largest tech companies in Silicon Valley.

"In the Bay Area, [computer science] is a social justice issue, so it's a no-brainer that students should have access to what drives the local economy," said Claire Shorall, Manager of Computer Science for OUSD. "There's untapped brilliance just sitting in the walls of our classrooms. As we provide an opportunity to more and more students, I expect the landscape of tech will change a lot."

The inclusion of more people of color in tech is something that Brandon Nicholson, executive director of the Hidden Genius Project, thinks about a lot. The Hidden Genius Project is an Oakland-based program that connects black male youth with the education and opportunity they need to thrive in the tech industry.

"It's important that they learn skills that can bring their ideas, their passion and their energy to bear... not to just be on a career pathway, but hopefully to thrive in their community," Nicholson remarked.

"That's not a given at this time, particularly in this city," he added, referring to the increasing number of residents that can no longer afford to live in the Bay Area, a disproportionate number of whom are minorities. "So many people are being displaced."

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As the tech industry has brought more money to the area in recent years, rent and property values in Oakland have skyrocketed. That the city is so close to these wealthy tech companies while its residents are largely unrepresented within them is an inescapable fact for those who live here.

"You meet all these different people of color in your community and you go to these companies, and they're not there," Nicholson said. "Why is that?"

He believes that diversifying the workforce will soon become a priority for the companies that want to survive.

"They're going to have to be aggressive and they're going to have to compete," he said. "They'll have to find ways to either be first or be the best. It's not going to be enough to base that paradigm on a predominantly white or white middle and upper class perspective."

The Hidden Genius Project wants to help spur this change in the tech industry, but its organizers emphasize that the focus isn't to simply training young black men to be employable in Silicon Valley - it's about encouraging them to become entrepreneurs and creators in the tech space as well.

This is a central component of OUSD's computer science program and a core initiative of Computer Science Education Week.

"I think central to our mission is for young people to create the next wave of big tech companies for themselves and for the community," Shorall explained. "Computer science is one component, but so is entrepreneurship, so is ethnic studies, so are all the other wrap-around academic experiences students have. Computer science exists within an ecosystem of what it means to be tech."

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This is also why OUSD and the Hidden Genius Project partnered with the Kapor Center for Social Justice and the Oakland Public Education Fund to create Oakland Is Beyond, a program designed to expose students to tech opportunities beyond the realm of engineering. The initiative sponsors several events for Bay Area students during Computer Science Education Week that highlight the array of jobs available in the tech industry.

"We want to elevate not just the tech space, but also the students' interests and their strengths at the same time," Nicholson said. "Beyond is all about students imagining a future for themselves that's actually rooted in the assets they bring to the table."

The idea is for kids to understand that there's room in the tech world for them to do the things that they are already passionate about.

"If you love music or health or whatever, tech is a great way to get there, and it doesn't always mean that you're an engineer," Nicholson added.

Though Computer Science Education Week is just one week out of the year, the participating programs and organizations want students to feel this motivation every single day.

"We're thinking about this as a part of the entire K-12 continuum, not just this one-off that happens one week in December," Shorall remarked. "Students get really excited by this work, so you definitely feel the push from them for these courses as a result of exposure experiences like this."

Nicholson agrees that exposure is the key.

"So many people who work at the Googles and Facebooks of the world did not imagine themselves there even three years ago, and definitely not 10 years ago," he said. "They didn't understand the range of ways to apply their skills and strengths. We're trying to build an entire ecosystem that allows for that, both in school and out of school, so kids can begin to imagine themselves in those spaces."