The Beta Coders

Tech-savvy students are on a mission to diversify computer science through tutoring

The central dilemmas of a generation might be understood by the assignments a good teacher gives her students. How can we tell if a website is reliable? is the topic in Heavenly Cole’s computer science classroom at Lincoln High School one morning. Her students, well versed in issues of “fake news,” internet security, and social media ethics, set to work mapping their ideas on poster-sized sheets of paper.

Facilitating the discussion for one group is Sofia Schwartz ’18, who started the Beta Coders club at the University of Puget Sound in 2017 to tutor high school students in computer science. To her right, a new student looks confused, until Sofia turns to him and attempts to translate. “Esta es más seguras, y esta es menos,” Sofia says, pointing to two different web addresses. She stumbles over her Spanish grammar, but she’s making the effort, and the student, who has just moved here from Mexico, smiles and nods his head.

Another student, clutching his severely shattered but still usable iPad, explains to a visitor why he’s liking this class. “Coding is the language of the internet,” he says, sitting up straighter, “and we’re writing it.”

What I rationally knew—that people of color can do this work—was taken to the next level. It's not just possible to do it; we can thrive if given the opportunity."

– Sofia Schwartz ’18

Although not all of these students have had consistent access to technology, their generational peers—in Gen Z—have been called the first true “digital natives.” They were born into an age of smartphones, texting, and digital everything. The ability to work with and manipulate this technology is at once intoxicating and mandatory.

“At first, I signed up for this course because I needed the credit,” says a young woman to Sofia’s left, who has taken charge of the poster with a Sharpie. “But then we’ve been working on building a website, and it’s actually pretty cool.”

The fact that this young woman of color is here at all is a boon. The fact that she has Sofia, who identifies as Latina, as well as Heavenly, a computer science teacher who’s a woman of color, is extraordinary. In 2017, Wired magazine reported that of all the high school students who took the computer science AP exam that year, only 27 percent were women, and 20 percent were people of color.  

Sofia’s interest in the field was almost accidental. Raised in the Bay Area, she enrolled in the Business Leadership Program at Puget Sound but then took a computer science class and realized “what it was to actually be passionate about your major.” She knew that women were underrepresented in STEM fields, but when she switched to computer science and looked around to find that her classmates were mostly male and white, representation became personal. In 2016, with encouragement from America Chambers, the only female professor in Puget Sound’s mathematics and computer science department, Sofia applied for a grant to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration, the world’s largest gathering of women technologists. There, she found the role models she’d been looking for.

“What I rationally knew—that people of color can do this work—was taken to the next level,” she says. “It’s not just possible to do it; we can thrive if given the opportunity.” 

After the conference, Sofia felt inspired to promote diversity in computer science among young people. “I wanted to say to those who look like us, ‘You can do it, and we’re going to be here to encourage you along the way.’”

She decided to start a tutoring program for one of the local Tacoma high schools that had the least access to computer science mentors, and sought the help of Adam Smith, an assistant professor who sits on a Tacoma Public Schools committee focused on computer science. He recommended Lincoln High School, which fit the bill with 80 percent students of color, in a low-income neighborhood.

Adam connected Sofia with Heavenly, who teaches five computer science classes at Lincoln. “Kids learn better in smaller groups,” Heavenly says, “so it’s amazing when [the Beta Coders] come and we can get [the kids] individual attention.”

Sofia couldn’t do it alone, so she started a club and recruited her classmates with a many-angled pitch. “You’ll get good experience, and a good worldview, being in an environment that’s likely different from what you know,” she said. “You’ll build your résumé, earn volunteer hours, and reinforce your own understanding of the concepts you’re learning here.” But most important, she reminded them, this was an opportunity to be of service. It worked. This year, Beta Coders had a roster of 20 students tutoring in Heavenly’s classroom at least three times per week.

Lia Chin-Purcell ’20 was one of the students who heard Sofia’s pitch. When she arrived at Puget Sound from St. Paul, Minn., she’d intended to major in a hard science, but then she took Intro to Computer Science in her first year and says she “totally liked it.”

But something had been bothering Lia. In one of her courses, she realized that many of the analogies her male professor used to explain concepts had to do with sports. “He was definitely catering to his male audience, which to his credit was more than half the class,” she recalls. But when, in another class, another male professor talked about different components of code being like a car—the model, the make, “and a bunch of other terms I didn’t know,” Lia says she found the language problematic.

Of course, sports and cars and their analogies aren’t exclusive to one gender. It can be argued that socialization of girls and boys, rather than language, is the problem.

In 2014, NPR reported on a study showing that the number of women in computer science had been declining since 1984. Researchers noted that 1984 was the year computer games were introduced to the mass market—and targeted to boys. A gendered cultural narrative followed, and computer science became a male-dominated field.

Lia grew up playing computer games with her dad, which may have given her an edge. “Thank God I knew how to understand the information,” she says. “But what if I didn’t?” 

It’s that question that drives Lia to carry on Sofia’s legacy. This fall, as Sofia starts a new job at Accenture in Seattle with a computer science degree in hand, Lia will assume a leadership role for Beta Coders, along with Kendall Aresu ’19 and Jake Redmond ’19.

“My high school was very much like Lincoln,” Lia says. “It’s fulfilling to open one more opportunity to a student who could very well have been me.”

 

By Margot Kahn
Published July 31, 2018
Photos by Ross Mulhausen