Redefining Bilingual at #LATISM13: the Power of Learning to Code

By Khadijah Britton

On Saturday September 21, 2013, DiverseScholar Executive Director Alberto Roca, PhD led a panel on Student Software Coding Experiences for Future Latino Entrepreneurs at the 5th annual conference for Latinos in Tech Innovation & Social Media (LATISM; Jump to archived tweets below). Held at the Waldorf Astoria in New York City, the conference brought together Latinos from across the nation working in social media, activism, health, entrepreneurship, and education to discuss how technology can benefit the Latino community.

Demystifying Code

DiverseScholar’s LATISM panel discussion brought together students, writers, scientists, foundations, and developers that shared a motivation to enhance opportunities in technology for young Latinos. However, the ensuing conversation quickly went deeper to explore what it takes to create the next generation of Latino leaders.

It’s not about teaching kids to code, as much as it is about teaching them to think — A.R.Castro

The conversation began with the three members of the panel describing their programs. The panelists were Rebecca Garcia, New York Director and U.S. Evangelist for CoderDojo; Sarah Esper, co-founder of San Diego’s ThoughtSTEM and Dr. Jarvis Sulcer, Executive Director of the Level Playing Field Institute (LPFI) in Oakland, California. (Unfortunately, panelist Oscar Menjivar of UrbanTxT was unable to attend the conference.) While their organizations serve different audiences, each uses coding as a tool to empower minorities underrepresented in the sciences to create, learn, and share with one another.

Rebecca Garcia introduced CoderDojo, a global, volunteer-run nonprofit where mentors develop code-based projects with underrepresented minority youth across the U.S., as well as in Mexico, Colombia, Spain, Romania and many other countries. Ms. Garcia told us her own vision is to “fix the pipeline and bring all young people together so diversity in tech becomes a new normal”. She was recently honored by the White House as a Champion for Change for her work increasing participation in technology among women and minorities (Park 2013).

Dr. Jarvis Sulcer of LPFI introduced his organization through the lens of his personal story. Raised in Louisiana, Dr. Sulcer obtained an undergraduate degree in physics and a PhD from Cornell in nuclear science and engineering before working at Hewlett-Packard and other Silicon Valley companies on cellular phone technology. After a decade of this, he found his calling at LPFI. He told us: “there are many more Jarvises out there, and I just wanted to give back however I can”. LPFI’s mission is to eliminate barriers for students of color and foster their untapped talent for the benefit of our nation. While the organization is based in Oakland, CA, its vision is to have a national impact far beyond the Bay Area by using a two-prong approach: delivering STEM programming for young women and young men in Oakland middle schools and high schools, and undertaking rigorous research and evaluation of innovative solutions inside the organization and across the STEM education community.

Sarah Esper is co-founder of ThoughtSTEM, and a PhD student at the University of California, San Diego studying science education. ThoughtSTEM’s mission is to give all students access to college-level computer science education before they graduate from high school. Students learn languages such as Scratch, HTML, Ruby, and Javascript and can earn all the way up to “Black Belt”-level skills ranging from arduino development to critical reasoning. Ms. Esper explained the importance of even knowing basic computer code: “no matter what field kids go into, they will need to do a little bit of programming, talk to someone that programs, and talk to tech support when they have a problem”. ThoughtSTEM ensures that participants come out with not only coding skills, but also the confidence to ask questions and satisfy their curiosity in a range of disciplines.

Improving Communities

A foundation representative in the audience asked the panel “who stands to benefit, systematically, from these kids learning to code?” To place that question in context, Dr. Sulcer shared some alarming stats on underrepresented minority participation in the sciences, along with LPFI’s plan to address them. According to NSF, only 7% of African American students get a college degree in a STEM field. In California, Latinos represent 51% of the K-12 student population, but only 7% of them take AP computer science, and African Americans are 7% of the K-12 population but only 1% of those take AP computer science. This means that a large percentage of the population is not being educated for the jobs of the future.

According to Ms. Esper, one beneficiary is the local public school system: professional development in computer science is difficult, expensive, and time-consuming, and it turns out to be much more efficient to deliver project-based curricula that allow teachers to oversee students as they teach themselves and each other to code. Ms. Garcia said that local companies in New York benefit because students trained through CoderDojo are vetted and given early access to resources, therefore becoming potential hires. She used herself as an example, recounting: “I personally didn’t know about computer science, myself, growing up, and only learned about it through an after-school program”. Dr. Sulcer echoed Ms. Garcia and provided a concrete example: Facebook just launched an internship program focused on college freshman, and are diversifying their incoming class with LPFI students. He went on to reason that universities benefit by having better-prepared undergraduates entering college, which saves the universities money that would be spent in basic preparation for upper-level STEM courses and increases the number of their students that go onto graduate study. Finally, Dr. Sulcer said, the community as a whole benefits, when students graduate with a technology degree, they have higher earning power and the ability to re-invest that higher income into their families and communities.

By teaching them to code, we transform los mudos to leaders - the entrepreneurs of their schools and the cool kids in their communities — A.R.Castro

Scaling Up

The conversation, naturally, shifted to issues of scale. How do we provide these programs to all of our nation’s students that need them? Ms. Garcia explained that CoderDojo handles the issue of scale by serving as the launching point and then providing a pipeline for other organizations. After getting students interested, CoderDojo then pushes the students into more advanced programs and internships. While ThoughtSTEM has had incredible success with in-person workshops, Ms. Esper conveyed their desire to reach more people. ThoughtSTEM has digitized many of its curriculum tools, but the staff see the importance of in-person support. Ms. Esper explained: “there is no research that tells us just a MOOC will reach the audiences we want to reach - they need mentorship and support developing their social side”. Dr. Sulcer expressed concern with relying on MOOCs but also emphasized the lack of in-person support: for example, there is only one computer science teacher serving the entire Oakland school system. He explained further with a focus on scale above depth of impact: “I see impact as the difference you make, and scale is serving a significant number of students - a high-impact program is not as scalable”. He called a high-impact, highly scalable program the “holy grail” of science education.

Empowering Los Mudos

As the panel wrapped up, Ms. Garcia told participants that we need to reach a tipping point in solving all of society’s problems soon, and that technology will be the catalyst for that change, if we use it that way. To that end, ThoughtSTEM, CoderDojo, and LPFI all host competitions and hackathons, (for example, LPFI’s event) which empower students to create their own apps for social good. As Dr. Sulcer explained, “underlying all that we do is a social justice focus”. For each project, students ask “how can we use computer science to solve problems in the community?” This makes the coding education meaningful.

LATISM founder Ana Roca Castro closed out the session, explaining LATISM’s new program, Drop Into Code. “To me, discovering code was an epiphany,” she reflected. “It’s just another language. Our kids are lagging behind in learning English, and when we work with English learners, they can learn the code, and build something, and sell it to the other kids and then they feel cool”.

The image of turning los mudos (the mutes) into leaders is a good metaphor for all social justice science education, and certainly applies to all of the programs discussed here. DiverseScholar will follow up with our panelists, LATISM, the Kapor Center and other groups involved in this urgent effort to ensure a multi-generational learning platform that integrates online coding skills with the social skills for life-long success. We will keep you updated and welcome you to join the movement.


Todd Park (2013) Honoring Tech Inclusion Champions of Change at the White House. Office of Science & Technology Policy blog

Khadijah Britton is a multimedia journalist, freelance writer, and founder of the after-school science media program for inner-city girls, BetterBio. Any opinions expressed in this article are solely those of the author.

Photo: Student Software Coding panel (from left to right): Alberto Roca, Rebecca Garcia, Jarvis Sulcer, and Sarah Esper.

The citation for this article is:
K. Britton (2013) Redefining Bilingual at #LATISM13: the Power of Learning to Code. DiverseScholar 4:5

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Published 22-Oct-2013