Tech Entrepreneur Brings Coding to Teens in South Central L.A.

TXT is one of many nonprofit initiatives focused on immersing underserved youths in the kind of coding and robotics camps that affluent communities take for granted. Other groups include Black Girls Code and CodeNow, both active in the Bay Area, and Hartnell College in Salinas, a community college. Photo by Do Space, CC BY-NC 2.0

Schools Across the State Look to Expand Computer Science Classes

Tony and Marcus, both 14, are swiping their phone screens frantically on a recent Saturday outside the Salvatori Computer Science Center at the University of Southern California.

Found them!

They both scroll to the websites they developed this summer and hold up their phones, displaying the final products of their programming and project management skills.

“We built these from scratch,” said Tony, who lives in the San Fernando Valley.

Tony and Marcus, who lives in Compton, were at USC for the South Central LA Demo Day—Twitter hashtag hustleNcode—in early August. At the competitive event, young men of color pitched their tech inventions after having taken part in a coding academy over the summer.

At Demo Day, Tony and Marcus, whose names have been changed because their parents were not on hand to grant permission to be interviewed, watched as the older students from their academy presented a variety of creations geared toward their communities.

Teens presented cell phone apps to help lower-income families find free events they could attend together. There was a program that would reserve and pay for washing machines and dryers in advance so people could avoid spending hours waiting at laundromats. Another app will alert young people to wake up when they fall asleep on long bus rides so they don’t miss their stops.

Demo Day and the coding academy were offered by TXT: Teens Exploring Technology, the brainchild of social entrepreneur Oscar Menjivar, who describes coding and entrepreneurship not just as paths to individual prosperity but to community wellbeing as well.

Two teen participants show off their computer coding projects at South Central Demo Day in Los Angeles. Photo by Amy DePaul

“That’s how we’re going to empower our community,” Menjivar said to his audience of parents and mentors on Demo Day, slipping into Spanish and back to English. “We’re not going to do it by thinking we’re poor and we don’t have anything.”

Menjivar, who is Latino, grew up in Watts, where his high school tech program was limited. However, a teacher took an interest in exposing him to electronics and he went on to study computer science in college. He later earned a master’s degree in learning technology and eventually founding TXT in 2008.

Bringing Coding to Communities

TXT is one of many nonprofit initiatives focused on immersing underserved youths in the kind of coding and robotics camps that affluent communities take for granted. TXT focuses on young men of color in middle and high schools in South L.A. Other groups include Black Girls Code and CodeNow, both active in the Bay Area, and Hartnell College in Salinas, a community college.

The programs could position underserved youths to take advantage of the many science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, careers available in California, more than half of which are in coding, according to Professor Mark Warschauer, who researches technology and learning at UC Irvine’s School of Education.

“As a practical issue, there are 68,000 computing jobs in California,” said Trish Williams, a member of the California State Board of Education.

Williams is leading an effort to bring computer science, a broad field of study that includes coding, to K-12 schools throughout California. This effort gained ground in late June when the state budget provided for a committee to develop academic standards and guidance in computer science instruction and an advisory panel to focus on teacher development and alignment with California’s public universities. The committee will begin meeting in September, and the panel is not yet scheduled to meet.

The hope is that new standards might be adopted by the State Board of Education in 2018, Williams said. While they won’t be mandatory, the standards will give school districts needed roadmaps to curriculum development and implementation.

“For kids whose parents did not go to college or have tech-savvy family members, learning about computer science in K through 12 is critical,” Williams said.

Many districts are already offering K-12 computer science instruction in their schools. Coding camps for low-income young people and quality computer classes in school could reinforce one another, Williams said.

Crossing the ‘Lettuce Curtain’

In Salinas, Hartnell College is collaborating with the Alisal Union School District to introduce coding to young kids, many of whom come from immigrant families, according to Maggie Melone-Echiburu, director of Hartnell’s K-12 STEM Programs.

As early as kindergarten, students can take part in Saturday classes and by second grade, they are introduced to the concept of binary, that is, using 0s and 1s to instruct computers. In building “binary bracelets,” students spell their names using beads assigned to letters in the same ways 0s and 1s would be assigned to information in computer coding.

The kids also go outside for a kind of hopscotch that involves jumping among different colors and shapes according to a particular logic and sequence to understand algorithms, which in coding are a sequence of actions that convey instructions to a computer.

The task at Hartnell has not been without challenges. Students in the district use computer tablets at school, but largely do not have laptops at home. They needed training in typing and often have to learn what a mouse and keyboard are. Still, they catch on to the bigger concepts quickly.

“Coding is a language so the younger they are, the easier they learn,” Melone-Echiburu said.

Hartnell also has established teacher training and “coder dojos,” which are community events where people can drop-in to learn coding at libraries. Fostering friendships across class lines, the dojos have drawn participants from both sides of the so-called “lettuce curtain” that divides locales such as upscale Carmel from working-class Salinas.

Back at the TXT Demo Day in South Central, the energy was palpable as teams of students presented their tech solutions designed to address problems in their communities. One of the most memorable was a voice-recognition tool encased in what looked like a large rubber duck produced by a 3-D printer.

Daniel Mendoza, 14, who completed the introductory camp at TXT, said during a break in Demo Day that he was new to programming before this summer’s academy, even though he attends a competitive science and math high school in Hawthorne.

“I never experienced coding before,” he said. “Now it’s my favorite topic.”

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