Just across the bay from San Francisco, a group of Oakland Technical High School students has been meeting twice a week for months, hacking away on robots slated to compete in two of the most important series of student robotics competitions in the world.
At Oakland Tech, around 20 high schoolers have been building robots for the Vex tournament and for the FIRST competition, where thousands of students go head to head to see which team can build the most capable machine.
The robots are supposed to be able to do random, albeit challenging, tasks. In this year’s Vex event, which took place in January in Mountain View, Calif., at the Google Campus, the Oakland club was tasked with making a robot that can pick up small star-shaped figurines and throw them over a fence. For the local FIRST competition, which was held in San Francisco in March, the team had to build and program a robot that could pick up a cog and hang it on a peg.
Building these robots means piecing together a body, getting the motors working, then programming it to carry out an order. And it all has to work together without a hitch. It’s not easy.
While Oakland’s team has won awards at robotics tournaments against contestants from all over the world, the team also stands out in other ways.
“When we go to competitions, we really don’t look like the other teams that are there,” said Kai Drayton-Yee, one of the leaders of Oakland Tech’s robotics team, who is Chinese, Japanese and black. “A lot of it is white, male dominated and heteronormative.”
Oakland Tech’s robotics club is led by three non-male-identified students.
“We generally have the highest number of women on our team,” said Drayton-Yee. “And we generally have the most people of color on our team, too.”
Their robotics club doesn’t look much like a typical group of engineers in Silicon Valley, either.
At Google, for instance, only 1 percent of its tech employees are black, only 3 percent are Hispanic and only 19 percent of all its tech employees are women.
Likewise, at Facebook, 1 percent of its tech employees are black, 3 percent are Hispanic and 17 percent are women, according to data released by the company last summer. In its blog post about the report, Facebook blamed a lack of available talent on what’s called the “pipeline” problem, lamenting that there aren’t enough diverse candidates entering the tech industry.
One likely reason for the shortage of candidates is a dearth of technology education in public schools.
Computer science in Oakland
Computer science education in public high schools across the country is rare, particularly in areas with high minority populations. But in Oakland, one of the most diverse cities in the country, that’s changing.
In 2015, only three public high schools in Oakland offered computer science courses. But this school year, 14 do, out of 17 high schools district-wide.
There are now 2,853 Oakland public high school students enrolled in computer science, up more than three times from the 685 that were enrolled in it during the previous school year.
For comparison, 10 of the 14 public high schools in San Francisco now offer computer science courses. (Though the cosmopolitan city just north of Silicon Valley has seen its overall public high school enrollment shrink after the late-1990s tech boom, as many of San Francisco’s wealthy residents opted to send their kids to private schools.)
Statewide in California, only 35 percent of high schools offer any computer science courses, according to data from the Level Playing Field Institute.
Computer science education is also expanding across the country. Chicago offers computer science at approximately 65 of its 106 public high schools. In Los Angeles, of the city’s 97 public high schools, 74 currently offer computer science courses. In Miami, all public high schools offer the courses, and in Washington, D.C., 10 of its 16 public high schools do. The data was compiled by the school districts for Recode.
Private money, public education
The computer science expansion at Oakland high schools was funded in part by a $5 million grant from Intel to grow the programs over the next five years. By 2018, the district plans for every public high school in Oakland to offer computer engineering courses. Now that it is part of Oakland’s core academic requirements, every freshman is required to take computer science if it’s offered at their school.
But nationwide, only seven states have standards for computer science in K-12 education, according to data from the nonprofit Code.org, and only 32 states allow computer science to count toward high school graduation — otherwise it’s an elective.
“Hundreds of students across the district will now be creating applications and hardware projects, like robotics or websites,” said Claire Shorall, who teaches calculus and computer science at Castlemont High School in Oakland and spearheaded the school district’s computer science expansion. “I think what we’re going to see are ideas that haven’t yet entered the market, because students from diverse backgrounds will create things we haven’t seen before.”
“Forty-five percent of all computer science students in Oakland Unified are young women, and our numbers for African American and Latino students far exceed what we see in the tech workforce,” Shorall said.
Most of the Oakland school district’s computer science teachers started as teachers in other areas and were trained up to teach the new courses. And most of those teachers leading Oakland’s computer science classes are people of color, too, which Shorall says makes it easier for students from underrepresented communities to envision themselves entering tech jobs.