Students of color are paving their own way into the STEM field: 'Being uncomfortable in these situations helps others who look like me be more comfortable'

As a generation born in the wake of teenagers coding HTML to personalize their MySpace profiles, Gen Z simply takes its own initiative when it comes to entering the STEM field.

A sophomore at Stanford University, Devin Green told In The Know that he got into STEM not because of a particularly inspiring physics class but because he saw Avengers when he was 11. He thought Iron Man's suit and its AI, Jarvis, was the coolest thing he'd ever seen, and after getting home from the movies, he asked his parents if he could stream Iron Man on his iPod Touch.

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Two years later, at the age of 13, Green had developed his first app.

“I didn’t even know where to begin,” Green said about coding. “Jarvis was the end goal, what I always felt like I was working toward — but I realized really early that I needed to take smaller steps.”

At no point did Green’s parents pay for extra tutoring or enroll him in engineering classes outside of school. Beyond their basic knowledge of how to operate an iPhone, neither of his parents had any understanding of computer engineering. As a middle schooler, it’s not like Green had any financial resources to kickstart his career either.

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According to NerdWallet, the average in-person coding boot camp costs almost $14,000. The average online boot camp is almost $13,000. Some community colleges offer coding classes for around $3,000 — but some also require the completion of prerequisite classes.

“I just looked at the scenery around me and, OK, so I watched [Iron Man] on my iPod Touch, and I love Apple products — like my whole family is invested in this Apple ecosystem,” Green explained. “So let’s try to see what I can do with making an app. At the time, I was just completely ready to dive in.”

Green downloaded manuals off iBooks and read them cover to cover; he Googled every question he had, scrolled through Reddit for answers and suggestions, and watched as many YouTube tutorials on programming languages as he could.

“There were just so many resources available that I never really came to a point where I was frustrated that I had nowhere to turn to,” he said. “The fact that all of those resources both just exist and are free for people like me, like my age [and] my background, to use is just incredible.”

In high school, he developed his second app, called Slight Work. It was a time management app for fellow students, and suddenly everyone from his school’s principal to the local superintendent had heard about it. The first question people asked Green: When did he find the time to learn and then program an entire app as a junior in high school?

“In the very brief free moments that I had between classes or taking a break from doing homework or outside of the basketball practices I would have for the high school, I would go ahead and write a few lines of code here and there,” he said. “They eventually started to pile up to the point where I could actually submit [the app] and have my friends use it.”

A Forbes report found that, as recently as 2018, 25% of U.S. high schools with the highest percentages of Black and Latinx students didn’t offer Algebra II — a common prerequisite for higher-level STEM courses. A third of these schools also did not offer chemistry.

Students of color are inherently disadvantaged throughout the U.S. school system to even consider pursuing a degree, let alone a career, in STEM. While it’s impressive Green spent so much of his free time teaching himself how to code, he is well aware — especially now as a computer engineering student at Stanford — that his drive is what got him here.

“STEM can be extremely welcoming,” Green said during a STEM/STEAM Day Developer Meet & Greet hosted by Apple on Oct. 14. “But there are not too many faces that look exactly like mine, and it can be difficult to stay motivated.”

Green was invited to speak at the October Apple Meet & Greet after winning the Swift Student Challenge — where 350 winners are picked after submitting a project that demonstrated their coding and problem-solving skills. Apple, which has hosted a Worldwide Developer Conference regularly since 1987, invites these STEM students to attend for free and learn from other developers from around the world.

Another winner was 15-year-old Abinaya Dinesh, a student who, like Green, found interest in coding and artificial intelligence (AI) outside of school. Currently a high school student, Dinesh has already built an app and runs the Girls in AI nonprofit.“It didn’t feel intimidating to me,” Dinesh said about teaching herself to code. “I grew up in a conducive and welcoming environment. A lot of it was still learning things on my own.”

Dinesh’s older sister, Akshaya, also had been teaching herself to code for years. The sisters used platforms like Khan Academy and Coursera to teach themselves data science and computer programming.

“I applied to anything with the word ‘STEM’ in it,” Dinesh added. “If you enjoy what you’re doing and are motivated to do it, you’ll find time to do it no matter what.”

While Dinesh seems relatively positive about her experience in STEM and learning AI, just like Green, she had to do it all on her own time and outside of school.

In 2018, “Advancing Women of Color in STEM: An Imperative for U.S. Global Competitiveness” investigated the significant absence of women of color in STEM fields. The research article argued that “beginning in early childhood” and throughout most education and work environments, women of color face forces that “hinder their career development.”

“It’s hard to create an environment that’s welcoming for girls,” Dinesh explained, referring to her and her sister’s respective nonprofit groups, Girls in AI and Girls Make Apps. “Computer science shouldn’t be so isolating, and forming a community will transform your experience.”

Girls in AI is an eight-week program with around 25 high school girls interested in learning about AI. Dinesh comes up with the curriculums from scratch.

“When I first picked up AI, I found it really hard to figure out what the first step from there was,” she said. “I wanted to give these girls the right foundation for them to take their knowledge and apply it wherever they wanted.”

Dinesh’s focus — when she’s not working on her AP classes, participating in a hackathon or building a lesson plan for Girls in AI — is to fix the healthcare system.

Dinesh launched her app Gastro at Home at the beginning of the pandemic after being diagnosed with a pelvic floor disorder.

“My ultimate goal is to fix and re-establish what healthcare means to us,” she explained. “You go into this cycle of not knowing what to do and just following whatever a medical center tells you to, and I think that can take the control away from patients. [Gastro at Home] uses technology and knowledge of medicine so people are able to manage their own health in a way that’s sustainable.”

Healthcare in the U.S. has been found to be implicitly biased against patients of color — whether those biases be held unconsciously or consciously by physicians, there is a racial disparity in the quality of care.

“[Gastro at Home] has actionable items and ways for people to get knowledge where they would’ve felt isolated,” Dinesh said. “This has turned into something where, if you had issues and didn’t know where to go, this was a good starting point … Sometimes, these issues are hard to talk about because [patients] have to deal with stigmatized reactions.”

Dinesh eventually hopes to end up at Stanford, like Green, to pursue more computer engineering classes. A 2020 study found the race breakdown of computer science students at Stanford to be 36.9% East Asian, 33.6% white, 14.2% South Asian, 9.6% Latinx and 5.6% Black. Within every race, the fraction of men was larger than the fraction of women — the largest disparity of gender being between Latinx students.

“Me being uncomfortable in these situations helps others who look like me be more comfortable,” Green said when asked about being in that 5.6% of Black computer science students.

One of those students could very well be Dinesh.

“Getting your feet wet is the best way to overcome any fear,” Dinesh advised. “Start very, very small and get experience wherever you can — you will meet women in STEM and role models who will bring you to where you want to go.”

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