Posted by CSTA on May 19, 2023

Maria Camarena Headshot

Maria set out to build a computer science pathway at her school without guarantees of support from the administration or interest from the students. Despite these obstacles, she says, “I decided to dive in without hesitation.”

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Maria Camarena is a computer science teacher at Maywood Center for Enriched Studies (MaCES), a Los Angeles Unified School District school for students in grades 6–12. A ferocious advocate for girls in STEM, Maria has spent the last five years establishing a computer science pathway at her school, which now offers CS classes to all seventh-grade students and continued CS coursework, including AP CS Principles and AP CS A, for interested high schoolers. In recognition of her work and advocacy, Maria received the 2020 Teaching Excellence Award from CSTA and the Infosys Foundation, and the 2022 National Aspirations in Computing Educator Award from the National Center for Women and Information Technology (NCWIT).

Maria set out to build a computer science pathway at her school without guarantees of support from the administration or interest from the students. Despite these obstacles, she says, “I decided to dive in without hesitation.” She started with a single high school class called Exploring Computer Science, plus an Intro to Computers class for 150 seventh-graders. Maria has worked doggedly to find every possible avenue to sharing her passion for computer science with students. She founded a Girls Who Code club at MaCES and created the first Computer Science Honor Society in her school district region.

Maria Camarena Equity Fellow Card

But Maria’s efforts don’t stop at the coursework she offers and the clubs she sponsors. She tells a story of walking around during school lunch to talk to students about computer science. One group of tenth-grade girls kept turning her down, but Maria kept sharing opportunities: classes, summer programs, Zoom sessions with CS professionals. Finally, two of the girls in the group participated in a CS summer immersion program. Afterward, they admitted to Maria that they hadn’t known what computer science was all about. The two girls graduated in 2020 and are now computer science majors; one of them returns regularly to the school as a mentor for Girls Who Code. “When exposure and access are in place,” Maria says, “students’ confidence to pursue opportunities beyond their CS K–12 education becomes a reality, because students have become CS advocates.”

Maria’s tireless work to introduce students in her predominantly Hispanic and Latinx community to the joys of computer science has paid off. “CS classes are not a priority around the local schools,” she notes, but her school now offers computer science classes to 350 students per year. In the six years of this new CS pathway’s existence, 19 students have taken every CS class on offer and plan to continue their journeys in CS and STEM fields. A new partnership with a local college will soon allow MaCES to add a cloud computing class and certification to their course offerings.

Central to Maria’s work is her belief that “you can’t be what you can’t see.” She’s passionate about helping Hispanic and Latinx students see themselves in computer science so that they can “believe that CS is possible for people who look and sound like them.” In partnership with Beatris Gandaca and the Nuevo Foundation, Maria has been able to offer multiple annual Zoom sessions with Hispanic and Latinx engineers and other professionals at Microsoft, allowing the students to talk to and learn from CS professionals that share their background. She wants her students to be able to say, “If she did it, so can I.”

Maria partners with the LAUSD Instructional Technology Initiative for free professional development, resources, and materials that she can use in her classroom; and with the City of Maywood to support her students in promoting CS to surrounding schools. The students in Maria’s Computer Science Honor Society coordinated Maywood’s first-ever Computer Science Fair, with funding, materials, and swag bags supplied by the City of Maywood. With ongoing support from the city, she and her students are excited to continue the event in subsequent years. Maria’s also part of the CSTA Computer Science Honor Society Advisory Committee, which allows her to help other educators establish CS Honors Societies at their school with the benefit of the committee’s advice, support, and encouragement.

As a CSTA Equity Fellow, Maria can’t wait to learn from her cohort. “We all bring expertise to the table,” she says. “Generating and combining ideas to bring to life with other fellows would be amazing.” In particular, she wants to develop her skills in media relations, leadership, and advocacy. Her students have benefited so much from the partnerships she’s already established, and she dreams of using her voice as an advocate to build relationships with technical schools, colleges and universities, and companies of all sizes—all to give her students their best chance at thriving in the field of computer science.

Though Maria has seen many successes in her time as a CS educator, she still hopes to do more. She recently took seven of her rising seniors to visit California universities with strong computer science programs. “In every college tour, we were the only Hispanic/Latinx people present,” she says. Maria wants to get the word out to Hispanic and Latinx students, as well as other populations underrepresented in the discipline, to help them understand the field of CS, create their own CS identities, and become CS advocates to their fellow students and their communities.

“Equity in CS is more than just offering a course,” says Maria. “It’s building a support system that fosters a love and appreciation for what CS has to offer.” Learn more about Maria’s students and their shared efforts to bring computer science to their community on Twitter @csiseverywhere and Instagram @maces.cs@maces.gwc, and @maces_cshs.

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