SEASIDE — Giggling students munching on bagels and fruit cups at tables labeled “Fuzzy Bunnies,” “Cat Lovers,” and “Cocoa Puffs,” while discussing what “glow up” means, certainly doesn’t look like your average coding competition.
But that’s exactly what the fifth annual “Hackathon” at Seaside High School looked like this week. The event tasked teams of Monterey Peninsula Unified School District middle and high schools with designing and building their own app in line with this year’s theme, “glow up.”
Around 18 teams of four students from Los Arboles Middle School, Walter Colton Middle School, Seaside Middle School, Monterey High School and Seaside High School signed up to participate in the all-day event. Alumni from Seaside High and previous Hackathon participants served as mentors to help the students as they designed and programmed their apps.
Tessa Brown, the assistant principal at Seaside High School, has been instrumental in expanding and enhancing Seaside High’s computer science program. Formerly a math and computer science teacher, she said the idea for the Hackathon started about six or seven years ago.
“We had a new computer science program and we wanted to engage students in computer science and programming. And we wanted to connect students across grade levels,” Brown explained. “The idea is that the earlier we can engage students in computer science, the more likely it is that they’ll go on to pursue a career in computer science.”
Just half (51%) of all high schools offer computer science, according to a study by Code.org.
Computer science is a required class at Seaside High. Jeremy Shaw, a computer science teacher at the school, said getting students interested in the subject can be difficult, but the ability to be creative in designing and programming projects excites students.
Shaw’s class introduced freshman, Alejandro Juarez, to coding and made him want to get into computer science.
“It just opened my eyes. I was really interested,” he said. “At first, I thought it was going to be some boring computer science class, but it turned out to be really fun where we get to play around with things. It’s been a really fun experience doing it and it just teaches you a lot.”
While some participants had previous experience with computer science and programming, the Hackathon was many students’ introduction to coding. Faculty and staff knew this could be an intimidating barrier that might scare away interested students.
“We could probably expand this greatly, but you get the impostor syndrome where you think you’re not good enough,” explained Pat Murphy, a computer science teacher at Seaside High. “But everyone’s good enough to do it. Once they’re here, they find out that everyone contributes and jumps in and has a role.”
Yannan Cai, a junior at Monterey High School, was familiar with this anxiety. She had no prior coding experience and had never participated in a Hackathon before but signed up because she was interested in possibly pursuing the field.
“It’s pretty fun actually,” Cai smiled. “I thought it would be really scary and intimidating at first, but it’s actually a really welcoming environment.”
At the end of the event, each team presented their app to a panel of judges within the computer science and Hackathon community. The judges gave awards out to teams for the “most innovative,” “most downloadable,” and “exemplary use of the theme.” While only a few teams received awards, every student received a certificate of participation.
Debra Gramespacher has judged every Hackathon. A software engineer manager with Northrop Grumman Corp., Gramespacher worked with Brown to bring computer science to the Monterey Peninsula Unified School District.
“I’d like to think that as a computer science professional that I’ve been able to encourage girls to believe in themselves that they can be successful in a very competitive and not very easy career, but certainly a rewarding one,” Gramespacher said .
Earlier this year, Seaside High was named one of 760 schools in the country to earn the College Board’s AP Computer Science Female Diversity Award for Expanding Young Women’s Access to AP Computer Science Principles. A study by Code.org found that women who try AP Computer Science in high school are 10 times more likely to major in it, and Black and Latinx students are seven times more likely.
“The more we can make science, mathematics and computers enjoyable and fun, the more students will get involved,” Gramespacher said. “They’ll believe in themselves. They’ll believe they can succeed.”