People in your neighborhood: La Jolla’s teen code teaches computer science to less fortunate students

Since starting high school at Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Athena Coco Hernandez has run a coding program for kids who don’t otherwise have access to such a class.

His program, called “Codificar con Coco,” which translates from Spanish to “Coding with Coco,” teaches coding in the Python and Switch computer languages ​​to students in public elementary and high schools in Tijuana.

Athena, a 17-year-old bilingual English-Spanish senior of Mexican descent, also teaches public school students in Chula Vista and San Ysidro.

“My goal is to make computing more accessible” to those less fortunate, the La Jolla resident said. “At Bishop’s, I have this great opportunity to take four years of computer science studies in high school. »

Athena said non-English speakers find coding difficult due to the lack of opportunities to learn it.

Additionally, the coding language commands are written in English, which means “you have to teach English at the same time,” she said.

Athena teaches virtual coding sessions weekly, and more often during summer break.

For her efforts, which she says total 600-700 hours so far, Athena was selected earlier this year by the National Center for Women and Information Technology as one of 40 Aspirations winners. in Computer Science from more than 3,700 applicants nationwide.

According to the award’s website, winners are chosen on the basis of “their technological and computing skills and aspirations, as evidenced by their computing experience, computing-related activities, leadership experience, tenacity in the face of barriers to access and their plans for post-secondary education. .

The recognition has given Athena the “confidence to keep pursuing what I do,” as well as opportunities to connect with girls with similar goals, she said.

Codificar con Coco grew out of the Global Milestone club, which Athena co-founded with fellow Bishop students Crystal Li, Will Keefe and Sasha Berger in the spring of 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The club is an online platform that provides tutoring and other academic resources to students around the world.

Global Milestone’s efforts continue, but Athena quickly launched its coding program to focus on teaching computer science in Spanish.

Her father works at a hospital in Tijuana, so Athena advertised the coding program there. She offered it free to registrants.

“I don’t want people to pay, because education should be free,” Athena said.

Athena plans to pursue a degree in computer science one way or another at college, after taking part in cybersecurity research in December at New York University. She said those plans will likely be scaled back to focus on improving computer access for Mexican and Spanish-speaking students.

Learning to code can also help bridge the disparity in math education between Tijuana and San Diego because “computing is math-heavy,” she said.

Athena’s coding classes started with three or four students each, but have grown to include a dozen, with more waiting to join.

The increase in student numbers is a challenge, she says. “If I make the class bigger, I’m sacrificing everyone’s level of understanding.”

She said she was looking for other bilingual people to help her.

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