When Julia Duan and Srjana Srivatsa finally broke into their first coding class, they looked around the room and saw few people who looked like them. They’re determined to change that for students in the metroplex.

Together, the soon-to-be seniors at Plano West High School started The Future of Code, a nonprofit that teaches kids coding through classes and competitions.

Julia, 17, said she and Srjana, 16, both knew they were interested in coding in middle school but it seemed “hard and untouchable.” Once they got to high school, the girls took Computer Science Principles, a beginner coding class.

The students started seeing how they could turn this interest into a career, but noticed coding competitions were mostly older college students. Julia said that’s who most of the contests and opportunities were targeted to. They wanted students to be able to get involved sooner, like in middle school.

The Future of Code launched in January 2021 with its first Hackathon event.

The events present middle school students with a problem and they create projects to solve it, Srjana said.

At the first event, over 50 students created projects with solutions to COVID-19 in their communities, Srjana said. Some created apps for mental health, some made games to play in quarantine or a password manager since so much moved online in the pandemic.

Srjana and Julia also compete in speech and debate, so part of the competition is presenting the project because they know the value of public speaking skills in the field.

“That’s when we realized that we really had something special, that first hackathon,” Srjana said. “Ever since then, we started hosting more and more events.”

Students participate in a The Future of Code class. (Courtesy photo | Fort Worth Report)

Brittney D. Reed, who is the managing director for Talent Strategy at Teach for America and a contractor with Google, where she hires software engineers, said events like Hackathons are opening doors that may not be there for some students.

Reed cited a study from code.org in 2018 that said in 2016, Texas only graduated 15 students from universities prepared to teach computer science. It also said students of color and female students have less chance of the opportunity to take computer science courses.

Want the latest data?

View the 2021 report here

“These Hackathons, these boot camps are opening doors and making pathways that don’t necessarily exist, and if they do exist, they are hard to get into for for women of color, for women in general,” Reed said. “Computer science and coding, it is the future. It is the pathway forward for economic mobility…You don’t need a degree necessarily, to be a coder…it is the great equalizer.”

Aside from the competitions, the group hosted a summer workshop because there was a demand from younger students to learn how to code and how to improve. Through the end of July, the nonprofit has hosted three Hackathons, three seasonal workshops, raised over $1,500 it will donate and impacted more than 300 students.

About one-third of those students are in the Fort Worth/Tarrant County area. 

While it started with serving middle school students, Srjana said there was a demand in elementary and high school students, too. Workshops are open to all ages and the competitions are split up based on age levels. There also is an interest in college students and parents.

Teaching students these skills early is beneficial because so many jobs today require computer science, Reed said. Anything from the games people play to menstrual tracking apps require coding.

Julia said they want to keep the events affordable. Though some events have a $5 admission fee, those who want to participate can fill out a fee waiver form if they can’t afford it. The most recent summer workshop was $25, which covered six weeks of instructional content and classes. There are discounts for families and referrals.

Students at a The Future of Code event. (Courtesy photo | Fort Worth Report)

Other camps Julia and Srjana researched were hundreds of dollars, but Julia said they see the need for coding and want to keep it accessible.

“We realized really soon that coding was a super necessary skill, not only for us going into our career as prospective college students very soon, but also for the younger generation,” Julia said. “Solving problems is super crucial for the technological innovation we’ve seen recently.” 

Srjana said they specifically want to help girls break into the field. She and Julia initially by being the only girls in their coding classes.

“We were like, fighting together in a sort of male-dominated area,” Srjana said. 

The two are intentional about who comes to speak at their events. They ask women in coding to come to Hackathons as guest speakers to share their experiences, Srjana said.

“We really feel that for young girls who are getting into this field, it’s really important to hear from women who have been really successful in coding,” she said. “We find that when these women share their experiences at Hackathon, as guest speakers, young women are really empowered.”

Representation matters, Reed said. As a Black woman in the computer science field, she said she had a similar experience to Julia and Srjana of being the only woman of color in her classes. 

“It’s really about representation, and making sure that people who look like you or who go through similar things as you can understand what you’re going through,” Reed said. “It really is about unity here.”

A large portion of contest winners have been girls, Srjana said. Which makes her and Julia happy because they want girls to know they can compete with the boys and do exactly what they can.

Julia was one of four girls in a class of 25-30 computer science students. The experience gave her a lot to question about her future field.

“The teacher always made sure to sit us together at the front of the classroom,” Julia said.
“And sometimes we did feel like, ‘What are we doing? Why are we in this field? Why is it so hard and how come it’s the 21st century this is still a huge problem?’”

“It has been a little bit difficult because sometimes, just dealing with that personally and wondering if you’re actually fit to compete with other people,” Julia said. “But we’ve really found strength and inspiration from each other. I think working with Srjana also has inspired me to take a bigger stance in computer science and (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) and definitely in my career going forward.”

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at kristen.barton@fortworthreport.org. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 

Creative Commons License

Republish our articles for free, online or in print, under a Creative Commons license.

Kristen Barton

Kristen Barton is an education reporter for the Fort Worth Report. She has previous experience in education reporting for her hometown paper, the Longview News-Journal and her college paper, The Daily...