OAKLAND, Calif. — The lab starts filling up after school lets out. Students trickle in. They help themselves to a snack — today it’s tacos — and chat excitedly with friends. They laugh and joke, listening to Beyoncé and Rihanna on built-in speakers. Soon, employees from one of the world’s most influential companies will arrive to teach these students about computer science: how to program computer games, how to work with data and how to found and run a business.
Code Next is a free after-school program designed to make tech more accessible to students of color, many of whom lack opportunities to explore STEM fields in middle and high school. That affects the pathways students pick in college: A smaller share of Black and Latino students earn degrees in a STEM field than in other degree programs, according to a recent Pew Research study.
And that in turn affects people’s career choices. Code Next was launched by Google in 2016 in response to the stubbornly low numbers of people of color working in tech — only 3 percent of Google’s tech employees were Black or Latino back in 2014.
Code Next helps students picture themselves working in a STEM field by providing hands-on training and exposure to the tools and strategies used by scientists and engineers. Teenagers come to the lab to develop their own projects under the tutelage of Google employees and Code Next’s academic coaches. Projects include making animations, creating statistical databases of favorite sports teams and designing programs that can identify pneumonia in scans of human lungs. Some students have started businesses, while others have designed apps or built robots. Students work with hardware like microboards and single-board computers, as well as software, learning coding languages like Java, Python, HTML and CSS, and C++.
In addition to this lab space, Code Next runs campuses in New York and Michigan, and also offers some of its programs remotely. In the last seven years, the program has helped thousands of students feel more at home exploring science, technology, engineering and math. More than 90 percent of Code Next’s latest cohort of high school graduates advanced to higher education, the vast majority in STEM fields, according to a Code Next survey.
It’s significant progress toward the goal of connecting more young people with educational and career opportunities in technology. Still, in a city where math test scores are lower than average, some parents say even well-resourced programs backed by titans of the tech industry will only make a limited difference without broader interventions.
“We see that advanced math coursework is a huge predictor of college success, but this stuff is all foundational,” said Lakisha Young, founder and CEO of The Oakland Reach, a parent-led advocacy group focused on better supporting low-income students of color in Oakland. “It’s like kids are already getting knocked out for the count in elementary school.”
Designing a Space for Belonging
The Code Next lab occupies a retail storefront across from the Fruitvale subway station in East Oakland. It’s a cultural hub and one of the city’s most diverse neighborhoods. Half of residents are Latino, 20 percent are Asian, Asian American or Pacific Islander, 17 percent are Black and 2 percent are Native American or Alaska Native. The area is lively, known for its amazing food and annual Dia de los Muertos festival.
Fruitvale is also the scene of some of Oakland’s most painful recent memories. The 2016 Ghost Ship fire that claimed 36 lives occurred a few blocks from the Code Next lab. In 2009, at the subway station, local transit police shot 22-year-old Oscar Grant, an event many consider to have started the Black Lives Matter movement. The area struggles with high unemployment, homelessness and crime. It’s a place where one in five residents lives below the poverty line.
Inside the lab, the clatter of the subway, drone of the highway and chattering of pedestrians fades away. The first thing visitors see when they enter is a digital display that advertises upcoming Code Next workshops and features the name, photo and biography of a different Code Next student each week. Showcasing students is meant to convey to newcomers what can be accomplished, reminding them to dream big.
On one wall, 3D printers are stacked from floor to ceiling. The machines are each loaded with a different color. Some hum and whirr as they print student projects. A wood-engraving machine works around the clock in the weeks before Christmas or Mother’s Day, according to Community Manager Melanie Kimes.
Signs point out unique and sustainable building materials. Exposed pipes and wires crisscross overhead, helping students see and understand the building’s inner workings. The lab was deliberately designed to support students’ learning, explained its architect, Danish Kurani, who mentioned that high ceilings in the workshop are supposed to encourage creativity, while lower ceilings over the classroom are supposed to increase focus.
“Code Next is a perfect example of how better spaces can create social justice,” Kurani said. “These students are falling in love with STEM and going on to pursue these subjects in college and in their careers. They didn’t have these opportunities before we built a dedicated space to spark that inspiration.”
The goal of sparking creativity influenced every design decision Kurani made. Details like reading nooks for quiet study or reflection, overhead lights chosen to maximize focus and even the shelves lining the walls contribute to a student’s Code Next experience.
“All of the supplies, equipment and tools, everything is open, and kids have access to it,” Kurani said. “It’s that sort of permissionless environment, where they can just go grab it and do it, and I think that also helps them feel like this is their space.”
He hoped students would feel like they belonged at Code Next, like the lab was a safe and supportive place for them to take chances and challenge themselves, one that was conveniently located in their neighborhood.
“It not only helps with their confidence, and sense of belonging, it also helps with their creativity, because when you could see all the tools at your disposal, then they’re top of mind,” the architect said.
Students polled echoed Kurani’s sentiment. According to a survey he conducted among young participants at the Oakland space, 87 percent reported that they feel more creative in the Code Next lab than they do in their regular classrooms. More than two-thirds of students reported feeling more confident when they’re at the Code Next lab.
That’s because Code Next strives to meet students where they’re at, rather than expecting everyone to have the same interests or experience level like in most academic settings, said James Dominguez, a Code Next alum who now interns with the program as he completes his degree in computer science at San Francisco State University, in an interview.
Dominguez said the experiences he had as a Code Next student are the reason he wants to be a software developer. The program helped him learn about the tech sector and form strong bonds with other students interested in tech, he said. Since high school, he’s interned with some of the country’s biggest tech companies, in addition to his current efforts to provide peer support to the next generation of Code Next students.
Who Isn’t Being Served?
Code Next boasts a success rate for its alumni that any education organization would be proud of. But some Oakland parents worry that it’s the kind of extracurricular activity that will never serve most of the city’s students.
In eighth grade, only 19 percent of Oakland Unified School District students were grade-level proficient in math, compared to 29 percent of students statewide. In 11th grade, it’s only 16 percent of Oakland students, substantially below the state figure of 27 percent. While Code Next’s classes don’t necessarily rely on traditional mathematics, some parents wonder what benefit comes to students for whom higher education may seem unobtainable.
“Our schools are struggling to create kids who are proficient in grade-level math,” said Young, of The Oakland Reach. “When kids are not proficient in math, they’re not going to be connected to STEM in any sort of systemic, long-term way.”
Oakland schools have made significant investments in teaching computer science and engineering. They received large donations from tech companies aiming to diversify the industry. Salesforce upgraded all the tech for the entire district, and Intel funded a computer science program at one district high school and an engineering program at another.
Yet Young says many local offerings for advanced education in STEM-related fields are inaccessible to most students who may begin struggling in math and may write off a STEM education before they’re even old enough for these kinds of programs.
“Kids get cut off from these opportunities from an early age,” Young said. “And then by the time you get to a level where they could be a part of this amazing engineering program, it’s cut off for them, because they didn’t take the appropriate level of math.”
She says she wishes there was more attention paid to bringing students up to grade-level proficiency: “Proficiency in math creates more of a fertile ground for kids to be interested in math and science.”
She thinks more academic interventions and tutoring for those who are struggling can get more students of color interested in advanced STEM, but most organizations seem to be looking for a flashier solution to the field’s diversity problem.
“People step into things that they’re good at, and they avoid the things that they don’t know,” Young said. “It’s not sexy to do this grunt work, but we have to build the competence and confidence to get our kids proficient so that they want to explore STEM careers.”