Source Code And Beyond: Navajo Students In Shiprock Dive Into The World Of Coding

By Carrie Jung
Published: Thursday, April 13, 2017 - 7:02am
Updated: Monday, August 28, 2017 - 1:50pm

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Supported by Coder Camps

Every Thursday just after school about 10 kids at Shiprock High School get together in Abigail Cooksey’s classroom for an hour affectionately known to the students as Coding Club. 

"Everyone is so comfortable with each other here. We just laugh and we program things," said club president Amber Henderson. 

Henderson is a junior and Coding Club is her brainchild, born after completing and loving an eight week boot camp she attended last summer here at Shiprock High.

MORE: Can Expanded Computer Science Education In Rural Areas Prevent Brain Drain?

For Henderson, finding this boot camp was a bit serendipitous. After reading an article about coding in a "Seventeen" magazine, she said she knew she wanted to jump in. The trouble was, the only summer bootcamps she could find were in big, far away, cities like San Francisco and New York.  

"And I was pretty bummed about that," she explained. 

Travel from this small town in the northeastern edge of the Navajo Nation and lodging costs were not something she or her family could swing. But then, about a month later, Henderson saw a flyer for a coding boot camp in Shiprock.  

"It was crazy," she said. "My mom was like that’s a sign." 

Coding Club
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
In Shiprock High School's Coding Club, students do everything from building websites to programming robots.

Coincidence or not, Henderson jumped at the chance and joined eight other Navajo students for the summer class. It brought to her high school by a tech startup known as Cultivating Coders through a partnership with Teach For America and a nonprofit known as Gear Up. But not only did Henderson join other Navajo students, she was taught by Navajo instructors. 

"I think it’s powerful when you see people that look like you doing things that you never thought you could do," said Cultivating Coders founder Charles Ashley. He explained this setup follows the company’s larger mission, improving the racial, gender and geographic diversity of the tech industry. 

"Our model is let’s just bring the tools, and we’ll bring the tool box, but what we build will come from the community," he said. 

Ashley added his program sets up in areas where the need is high, which tends to be rural communities, in hopes of inspiring someone who might not otherwise get the opportunity to learn what’s becoming a lucrative skill. 

Shiprock High School computer science teacher Abigail Cooksey said while it’s only been about a year since last summer’s bootcamp it’s transformed the way many of her students think about computer science.

She explained before it was more like, "It’s a different language, so it looks really overwhelming," said Cooksey. "It definitely creates a mindset of 'oh that looks too hard, I can’t do that.'" 

But today, her students are diving right in. Coding club is about 10 students strong right now, most of which tell Cooksey they now want to pursue a computer science career.

"Which is really cool," she said. "Considering that our club is entirely native and 90 percent female." 

So can efforts like these to improve diversity in the pathway to computer science careers make a difference in overall tech industry diversity? Dr. Kimberly Scott the director of Arizona State University’s Center For Gender Equity in Science and Technology said yes and no.

Coding club
(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Coding Club members are trying their hand at programming languages like python to program robots.

"I think that if we have more African American, Native American, Latina and Asian American women, in particular, in tech industries, yes that has solved the issue of diversity," said Scott "However, diversity is different than inclusion." 

According to a 2016 report by Intel and Dalberg Global Development Advisors, about two-thirds of tech employees were white, and a majority of which were men.

While a lack of diversity is something industry leaders have acknowledged is an issue, Scott said the key to attracting, and more importantly, retaining a diverse workforce, there’s more to the equation than just learning how to code. 

"It has to be how to collaborate," Scott explained. "How to think in a computational manner, how to write a persuasive argument and how to lead." 

But she added, if and when the industry does reach a diversity level that reflects the population that could be a game changer in terms of innovation and productivity.

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