Jump to content

Rewriting the code

An after-school computer science class gave Victor Acuna his first glimpse into the world of coding. Despite numerous obstacles, he’s never looked back.

Two people wearing masks sit across from one another at a table in a meeting room, looking at open laptops. There are two other laptops and a notepad on the table.

When Victor Acuna was in middle school, he built a low-cost irrigation system that used sensors, timers, and notifications to help keep the soil moist. He was just 12 years old.

Victor entered his irrigation system in a national science competition, where even the judges couldn’t believe that a person so young could build something so sophisticated. They disqualified him on the grounds of plagiarism.

For some people, this experience would have been enough to make them walk away. Not Victor. “The judges didn’t believe me. They said my work was too complex for someone my age. And it pushed me to do more—to show them that, hey, I actually can do this.”

A story that started in elementary school

“My teacher Sandra Naranjo ignited my passion for computer science.”

Victor Acuna, UCLA student

Victor’s first experience with computer science happened almost by chance. He was in sixth grade at Helen Keller Elementary School in Lynwood, California. In the first half of the school year, his teacher, Sandra Naranjo, had signed up to try Code.org’s Hour of Code during CSEdWeek.

“I was amazed at how focused every one of my students was during that Hour of Code. They were all just so engaged. And I thought, my goodness, I need to tap into this,” said Sandra.

Later that year, when the school asked if any teachers were interested in learning more about coding, Sandra immediately put her hand up. She and a colleague set off to Google in Venice to learn about teaching coding with CS First—which uses Scratch, a block-based coding platform that gives kids the opportunity to code their own interactive games, stories, and more.

After this training, she decided to set up an after-school coding club—and Victor was a founding member.

A first glimpse at a world of possibility

“It’s so important to give students access to subjects like computer science. The skills they gain when learning how to code will help them in whatever they pursue. They’re problem solving, they’re thinking creatively, they’re collaborating.”

Sandra Naranjo, educator

Coding club opened Victor’s eyes to a whole new world. “Before I took that CS First course, I didn’t know computer science existed. I didn’t even know what STEM was,” said Victor. “If you were to tell me then that I’d go on to major in computer science at university, the younger version of me would’ve said, ‘What?’”

Until that point, Victor thought he’d be an architect. Or a doctor. He wanted a job that could help make a difference. “Our teacher, Ms Naranjo, told us something in our very first session that changed my thinking. She said, ‘In case you guys don’t know, computer scientists are relied upon on a daily basis. They’re the ones programming our phones, our computers, the games you play’,” he said.

Sandra showed Victor that, through computer science, he could do something that would play a big role in the world. And the best part? He absolutely loved it.

Alongside his friends, Victor began exploring the possibilities of code using Scratch. “We started with simple projects. Ms Naranjo showed us what a sprite was, and how we could make it talk. And, from there, we just started adding more.”

“In that first year, we were trying to create our own video game. Five Nights at Freddy's was pretty popular at the time, so we were trying to recreate that game in Scratch,” Victor said.

Breaking down barriers to achieve his dreams

By the time Victor reached middle school, he knew he’d found his passion. Yet learning about programming and computer science wasn’t easy.

“There were limited resources in my community, especially in middle school. I had to resort to teaching myself through YouTube videos, and I also signed up at my local community college to learn programming languages,” said Victor.

To complete his community college assignments, Victor needed Wi-Fi. His parents couldn’t afford it at home, so he’d spend hours at a time at the nearest McDonald’s. The persistence paid off—Victor was accepted to UCLA, majoring in computer science and engineering.

Helping others pursue their passion

“​​Back in my freshman year, I found out that less than 15 percent of people of color are in the STEM field. In my community, the majority are people of color,” Victor said. He knew all about the obstacles that many people of color face on the path to a computer science career—he’d experienced them himself. So he decided to do something about it.

“I thought to myself, why don’t I recreate a program to give back to my local community? So I founded United We Code,” said Victor.

United We Code is an after-school coding club for grades four to six, run by Victor and two of his peers. The students are learning how to use Scratch—just like Victor did all those years ago—to create characters and build new worlds of their own.

“Most of my students are people of color. And they tell me they want to be coders in the future. This makes me really happy, knowing that I’m helping to make a difference and adding more diversity to STEM and computer science fields.”

There’s still a long way to go, though. Victor is only one of a handful of Latino/Latina students in his class. But projects like United We Code, and people like Victor, point to a brighter future.

“Ten years from now, I hope that computer science is a lot more diverse field. I hope to see people from all different cultures and ethnicities working in STEM,” said Victor.

Feeling inspired?

You can help close the equity gap in computer science education by advocating for coding in the classroom within your local community.

If you’re an educator like Sandra, try CS First, Google’s easy-to-use computer science curriculum that has sparked many students’ passion for a career in STEM. The annual Hour of Code event is held during Computer Science Education Week (December 5-11, 2022). With millions of participants across the globe, it’s a great opportunity to get students excited about coding.

Sign up here for updates, insights, resources, and more.