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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

The Beta Coders club seeks to promote diversity in coding

University of Puget Sound sophomore Jake Redman, left, assists Lincoln High School student Antony Vo at Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash. Redman is part of Beta Coders, a group from the University of Puget Sound that tutors Lincoln students. (Brooke Thames / The News Tribune)
By Brooke Thames The News Tribune

TACOMA, Wash. – The Beta Coders club at the University of Puget Sound set out this semester to prove coding is more than just 0s and 1s by partnering with Tacoma’s Lincoln High School to mentor students in computer science.

Comprised of computer science students from UPS, the Beta Coders formed to teach others how to write computer instructions and introduce young people to computer science.

“I was never exposed to computer science until the end of my freshman year of college,” said junior Sofia Schwartz, who heads the nine-member club with four other executive members. “I wanted to be able to expose people at a younger level.”

The club initially set out to teach students how to code by hosting after-school sessions. Members quickly shifted to tutoring when they discovered how few computer science programs Tacoma schools offered.

With the help of America Chambers, assistant professor of mathematics and computer science, the club got in touch with Lincoln teacher Heavenly Cole, who invited the Coders to tutor in her computer science course.

They have helped out in Cole’s class three times a week since early February. They assist students with their work and make sure everyone remains on task while Cole leads the daily lesson.

The class recently worked with Scratch, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology program that helps students understand coding fundamentals without having to agonize over learning complex coding languages, Schwartz said.

The most recent assignment challenged students to program a series of animated scenes involving a cat’s summer activities. Students placed characters in a variety of scenes and coded their interactions.

Over the course of the semester, the Coders have seen the Lincoln students steadily develop their coding skills. UPS junior Haley Gray said she’s enjoyed watching students become better at tackling coding problems.

“That first time we tutored, I found myself giving them the answer,” Gray said. “It’s been interesting to watch them grow. … They’re trying, and that’s really nice to see them applying themselves to the course and to the material.”

Schwartz said she’s proud of the way students have begun helping each other in the classroom. She recalled a moment when a student who had finished the assignment started tutoring peers who were struggling.

“It’s cool to see them starting to work together a little bit,” Schwartz said. “Even if we facilitate it initially, maybe it’ll be more natural later.”

Although tutoring is the club’s primary focus, the Coders also see themselves as representing diversity in computer science. Schwartz founded the club in part so members could display a variety of ethnic, cultural and academic backgrounds.

She was inspired by the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing. Schwartz said she was astonished by the amount of diversity she saw at the conference in October in Houston.

After returning to UPS, she wanted to find her own way of promoting diversity in the field.

“Oftentimes, companies use the excuse that there aren’t enough qualified applicants from diverse backgrounds to explain their lack of diversity, but I’ve come to see that this is a cycle that needs to stop,” Schwartz said. “Representation is really important, so we’re tutoring to represent that this is possible.”

The Coders value not only racial and ethnic diversity, but also diversity of interests and educational backgrounds.

Gray plays on a sports team at UPS, while Junior Alex Hsu pairs business studies with his computer science major. Hsu’s high school computer science program was well-funded as opposed to Gray’s, whose experience with coding was limited before starting college.

Hsu said the diversity within the Coders mirrors that in the field of computer science.

“Diversity … is important, because a lot of people think that computer science is just programming,” he said. “There’s a lot going on beyond the typing part of computer science.”

Gray’s senior capstone class reflects the variety of computer science applications, with students’ projects ranging from hardware and web design to environmental study.

She aims to use her computer science education to aid environmental research.

“Occasionally, one of the Lincoln High School students will ask us what classes we’re taking, and it’s cool to show them the different options and the different applications of computer science,” Gray said.

Moving forward, the Coders would like to continue tutoring at Lincoln and branch out to more extensive instruction. Schwartz wants to ultimately introduce more diverse youth into the field and make coding more readily accessible.

“Many people see computer science to be an intimidating field that only a select few can strive in,” she said, “but I wanted to show people that it isn’t so complicated after all.”