Exposing Local Youth to Core Computing Principles and STEM Career Pathways
LLNL’s Computing Directorate is made up of people whose personal values motivate them to positively impact the world—LLNL’s national security mission is what draws many of them to work at a national laboratory rather than industry or academia. Computing employees have a genuine passion for making a difference in people’s lives.
It comes as no surprise, then, that Computing staff are also drawn to making an impact outside of work. “LLNL is dedicated to promoting science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) in the community,” says Computing’s Workforce Manager Marcey Kelley. “We in Computing take that commitment to heart, especially when it comes to engaging the next generation. Science doesn’t stay static, so if we are to meet and overcome the unknown challenges of the future, we must do our part to inspire and start preparing a workforce that’s well-equipped and motivated to get involved. That starts with today’s students.”
Arguably, there is no field where this engagement is more important than computer science and technology. “To succeed in careers across industries, all students need a foundation in computer science skills and experience using technology,” says Gary Laguna, a manager in Computing who, among his many outreach activities, speaks to fifth graders at Rose Avenue Elementary School in nearby Modesto during their annual Career Day.
“One of the challenges we face is helping students make the leap from the abstract concept of STEM to actual jobs that they might be interested in,” Laguna says. “It’s incumbent upon us who work in the field to provide supplemental learning opportunities to students eager for more access or who may never have considered science and technology as a viable educational pursuit.
To encourage staff involvement in these types of activities, LLNL initiated an optional STEM Outreach Program, which provides up to 32 hours of funding per year for employees to participate in pre-approved activities during work hours. The following sampling of programs represent some of the ways Computing staff are reaching out to increase student engagement and achievement.
Consultants at Nearby Charter High School
A team of Computing employees, led by computer scientist Kevin Griffin, has established an informal computer science mentorship, education, and curriculum-steering program at Millennium High School, a charter school located in Tracy, California, about 20 miles east of LLNL.
Griffin reached out to several coworkers after speaking to one of Millennium’s directors, who also happens to be his wife, about a need for more advanced computer science instruction. “Even in an introductory computer science course, students sometimes ask technical questions teachers don’t know the answers to. I knew there were people at the Lab who could help,” he states.
Griffin was pleasantly surprised by his coworkers’ level of interest, and they began meeting monthly to brainstorm lessons and divvy up the opportunities according to people’s schedules and expertise. “Not only is this team of volunteers motivated and highly skilled, we are also quite diverse,” says Griffin. “I want to reframe any existing notions these students might have that computer science isn’t an inclusive, exciting career path.”
Since the beginning of 2019, the Computing team has averaged two visits to the high school per week lecturing and answering questions on topics such as HTML basics, networking, binary representation, cybersecurity, and programming. Additionally, the group has participated on career panels and provided individual mentoring.
The team is consulting with Millennium’s Board of Directors and staff to expand their introductory computer science curriculum from a one-year course to a multi-year series of courses, which would prepare students to take an advanced placement exam and earn college credit. “Behind the scenes, our volunteers have spent countless hours researching educational platforms Millennium could take advantage of, such as CodeHS, as well as consulting with the teachers to help guide the more advanced second- and third-year classes,” says Griffin.
According to Griffin, who is also a member of Computing’s newly established Diversity and Inclusion committee, a benefit of volunteering in Tracy is that it is nearer to many employees’ homes. “There are several great STEM activities already in place in Livermore and in the Tri-Valley,” explains Griffin, “but many Lab employees don’t live in Livermore; they commute from Tracy, Manteca, Stockton. This particular opportunity allows those employees to showcase their commitment to STEM and help a community closer to home.”
Griffin is joined in this effort by Kelly Barrett, Alex Dominguez, Dung Huynh, Stephen Jacobsohn, Lauren Morita, Greg Pope, Steven Rodriguez, and Eric Schmar.
Girls Who Code Clubs in Livermore Schools
The Livermore Girls Who Code clubs are collaborations between the national nonprofit program, the Livermore school district, and LLNL. The umbrella Girls Who Code program (girlswhocode.com) provides lessons and hands-on curriculum ideas to volunteers from the Laboratory who visit the school sites once a week for about two hours to facilitate the club gatherings. The schools provide the space, equipment, and a teacher to help coordinate the clubs’ activities. The clubs are held at all seven comprehensive middle and high schools in Livermore.
“Women are still underrepresented in tech industries and careers,” says Kelley. “We’re backing the national effort to open doors for them to learn practical skills they can use now and in the future. And although the clubs are geared toward girls, we have several boys who attend and are very engaged as well.”
More than 35 mentors have volunteered with Livermore’s Girls Who Code clubs. The majority are from Computing, but several are from other LLNL organizations and from Sandia National Laboratories. For example, Marisa Torres, a bioinformatics software developer and manager in Computing, has been a facilitator for the Mendenhall Middle School club.
“What’s great about the clubs is that we’re teaching the students not just technical skills but also creativity, teamwork, leadership, and presentation skills,” says Torres. “In programming—and in life—it’s essential to be able to communicate your ideas and receive feedback. Programming is very much a team sport.
“Ultimately, I’d love to think the work we’re doing will help close the gender gap in tech careers in a decade.” says Torres, “But near term, if the kids are having fun and gaining confidence, that’s a huge win and well worth the time.”
Figure 1. Lindsey Whitehurst (standing, in gray stripes) is a regular volunteer at both the San Joaquin and Tri- Valley Expanding Your Horizons conferences. She has helped lead several workshops, including CompSci Investigators, during which participants customize a game by writing secret messages and clues.
Expanding Your Horizons Regional Conference
A similar concept is at work, and at play, at the annual Expanding Your Horizons (EYH) regional conferences, which showcase STEM careers to middle- and high-school-aged girls. Each conference provides hundreds of students the opportunity to take part in hands-on activities that spark curiosity and build a foundation for scientific and technological careers. Computing employees volunteer at both local conferences, in San Joaquin County and in the Tri-Valley.
Jean Shuler, a long-time manager in Computing, sits on the Board of Directors for the EYH network, which was founded in 1974 under the name Math Science Network. EYH now engages 24,000 girls a year in 33 states and in three countries.
“Year after year, EYH offers conferences that excite and inspire the young attendees,” says Shuler. “Our wonderful volunteers present fresh, engaging workshops and interactive activities that challenge the attendees while still having fun. Given our proximity to Silicon Valley and several tech giants and national labs, there’s a natural curiosity about computers in this region, so many of our workshops center on coding concepts and related skills. Our hope is that by meeting women who work in the field, girls can visualize themselves in those positions.”
Dozens of Computing employees have been involved in the local EYH conferences, with duties including conference cochair, workshop leader, career fair panelist, and finance and website support. At one recent conference, Computing employees Lindsey Whitehurst and Kathleen Shoga developed and led a workshop called CompSci Investigators, in which participants learned about keeping messages safe and secret through encryption ciphers and programming.
The EYH network has a partnership with Techbridge Girls, a nonprofit organization focused on designing and delivering best-in-class STEM programs to K–12 girls from low-income, under-resourced communities. Shuler is on the advisory council of the new entity.
“I absolutely believe that the best jobs in the country are math and science related,” Shuler says. “I feel compelled to share that belief and encourage young people, especially girls, to pursue STEM education.”
It is a point of pride that many Computing staff willingly commit to broadening the impact of STEM awareness in the community. “I’m hopeful that in each of our STEM outreach efforts, students take away the message that people at LLNL care about their future and that science is cool,” says Kelley. “I hope they’re motivated and empowered to dig deeper and maybe, just maybe, they’ll end up being the scientific problem solvers of tomorrow.”