Alumni bring Stanford computer science to low-income high schools nationwide
As part of an effort to make college pathways more equitable, alumni co-teach an introductory course that has long been a Stanford staple.
When teaching fellow Elina Thadhani, ’21, MS ’21, logs on to Zoom one morning last year, none of her students are online. It’s her last section of a Stanford computer science course being offered at a high school in the San Fernando Valley, and the final is only a few days away. She can hear the classroom teacher sounding annoyed and shouting at the teenagers to put their cameras on.
Suddenly all of them appear on screen, holding hand-made posters, decorated with hearts, that read “Thank You!” and “We love you!” Thadhani’s perplexed expression melts into laughter. “This is the cutest thing I have ever seen in my whole life,” she says. “This really warms my heart.”
After congratulating the sophomores at Birmingham Community Charter High School in Los Angeles on completing the HTML, CSS and Python coding assignments Thadhani turns to the course’s final lesson and displays a file of COVID-19 data from the World Health Organization on a shared screen. “Using just the code you know,” she tells the class, “we’re going to start thinking about what mini-experiments you can run yourself.”
Thadhani is part of an alumni and student effort that extended the university’s course, “Computer Science 105: Introduction to Computers,” to students in 15 low-income high schools nationwide, from New York to Hawaii. Enrollment for each class was vetted by local schools to ensure that students are ready for the course. By the end of the fall semester, more than 150 students had passed, earning both high school and Stanford credits.
Stanford Digital Education, a new unit of the Provost’s Office, launched the pilot in September as the first step in its mission to build more equitable pathways to advanced education through innovative teaching and learning models. The course was offered through a partnership with a nonprofit, the National Education Equity Lab, which connects universities to low-income high schools, such as Birmingham High. Two additional Stanford courses, in Structured Liberal Education and introductory college writing, are to be offered in the winter and spring quarters.
Stanford alumni are essential to the success of this effort. Matthew Rascoff, vice provost for digital education, explains that alumni teaching fellows bring a much-desired mix of academic preparation, technical skills and career experience. “The life paths they have followed, their professional accomplishments, and their networks make them ideal co-instructors and mentors,” he says.
Using an innovative hybrid format, CS 105 students met with their high school teachers in their classrooms for face-to-face active learning. Lectures from Stanford Computer Science Department Lecturer Patrick Young were recorded and available to stream. Teaching Fellows, who were alumni and Stanford students, led weekly sections on Zoom, held online office hours and fielded emails and message board posts from students.
"This type of distributed co-teaching could be an exemplar of a new way for alumni to deepen their relationships with Stanford while also advancing its impact: It allows graduates to join the university in extending our educational mission,” says Howard E. Wolf, President of the Stanford Alumni Association. “Much like our Beyond the Farm offering and other service programs, this approach to alumni engagement invites our alums to partner with Stanford to contribute to society. It doesn't get much better than that!"
So far, the outreach to fill these paid positions has been relatively low-key because of the small number of openings. That could change markedly in coming years as Stanford Digital Education looks to increase the number of courses it offers with the Education Equity Lab for high school students.
Andrew Kwan, MS ’02, MS ’06, is convinced that many Stanford graduates will seize the opportunity to teach under-resourced students as an alumni activity.
Kwan taught a CS 105 section of students at Miami Central Senior High School in Florida, despite living almost halfway around the world in Hong Kong. The founder and chief executive of a start-up and the father of two girls, 6 and 8 years old, Kwan has a busy life; still, he gave up 10 hours a week to be part of the CS 105 pilot — and he declined the pay. “I didn't sleep a lot, but I have to tell you this: I derived so much joy and satisfaction from working with these students,” he says, adding that he was moved by the many “thank you’s” he received at the end of each class.
Kwan was president for two years of the Stanford Club of Hong Kong after earning two master’s degrees—one in management science and engineering in 2002, the other in computer science in 2006. He still serves on the club’s governance board as well as being on advisory board for the Bing Overseas Studies Program. He frequently talks with recent graduates and is tuned in to their interests. “There are many young alumni who are passionate about topics such as computer science and climate change—they want to teach the next generation and share with them what they learned at Stanford,” he says. “They want to give back.”
Indeed, Vihan Lakshman, ’16, MS ’18, who led a CS 105 section from his home in Savannah, Georgia, for a high school class in Casa Grande, Arizona, felt that as an alumnus he was able to serve as something of a role model. His students were anxious about being able to keep up. Lakshman told them that he had struggled with a similar introductory computer science course in his freshman year at Stanford. “I had many late nights of frustration trying to get the programs to run,” he said. Yet he persevered and fell in love with the subject, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees in computational math and then working at Amazon for a stint. “I tried to emphasize to the students that this is hard for everyone, especially at the beginning,” he says.
Lakshman has been active in the past in alumni activities, helping to track statistics for the athletics department. He welcomed this new opportunity to stay connected to Stanford. “I'm so grateful for getting one of the best educations that you can get and being able to share what I've learned with high school students who haven't had this kind of opportunity and are excited about it,” he says.
While Lakshman had previously been a teaching assistant for Stanford computational math classes, Kwan had previously taught sections of Stanford introductory computer science classes. Thadhani taught her first section to Stanford students as a sophomore. The students at Birmingham High School were her 10th section.
Thadhani, who moved to New York City to work at a biotech firm after graduating from Stanford last year with a bachelor’s degree in bioengineering and a master’s in computer science, had not planned on leading another section as she started a new job in a new city. The unusual opportunity, though, was too good to pass up, she says.
Part of her enthusiasm came from her wanting to keep in touch with Stanford computer science friends who were also working on the course. Her departure from campus in June 2021 felt abrupt. “With the end of my Stanford career being very tainted by the pandemic, I never felt closure,” she said. “This was a great way to stay connected to the school — I miss Stanford so much!”
Thadhani said her motivation was the sense of responsibility that feels as a Stanford graduate. “Having experienced such an incredible education in computer science and having had access to some of the most brilliant minds in the field was an immense privilege; for that reason, it feels like I have a personal duty to take that education and help extend that towards others,” she explains. “It makes me really proud to be a part of an institution that is pushing to help make that education more accessible.”
Thadhani knew from the start that teaching this section of high school students would present challenges. Early on, she asked each student in their wildest dream, if they could use computer science to solve anything, what would it be? Some of the answers were strikingly different from what she had heard from Stanford students. These high school students dwelled on fixing problems like parents not being able to afford car repairs and worrying about mounting debt.
Birmingham High School teacher Lindsay Humphrey ’01, MA ’01 worked closely with Thadhani, helping her to track the students during the class. Everyone in the class was a sophomore, with one exception, a junior, and they were much more nervous than Stanford students. She followed Humphrey’s lead in assuring them that things would turn out OK and reminding them every section, “You’re high school students, and you’re taking a Stanford course!”
It was an extra boost that the students found it easy to connect with Thadhani. “The students call me Ms. Humphrey, but they call her by her first name,” Humphrey says in an interview after class. “It’s exciting for them to see someone closer to their age…. They love her.”
In class after class, the Humphrey-Thadhani teaching team encouraged good efforts, even if the work had flaws. They helped students feel comfortable with making mistakes. That’s something that happens in all coding, Thadhani says. It’s part of the process. In one section, Thadhani was showing the class how to do Python coding for a project, and the program didn’t run. When one of the students points out that she had a typo, she smiled. “You see, I make mistakes too,” she says.
The teaching team organized sections so that Thadhani would have individual time with each student in breakout rooms. They scheduled a weekly study session, generally at 6:30 Pacific time (9:30 p.m. for Thadhani in New York) because that’s when students were done with after school activities and could ask her for help with homework. Thadhani recorded videos with practice problems for students to watch when she wasn’t available to help.
In addition to teaching the students to code, Thadhani supported Humphrey in teaching new study skills. “They're high school students, they're not used to learning in a college style setting, where they're watching lectures and taking notes, and that's very new to them,” Thadhani says. “I think supporting them through this new way of learning on top of supporting them with the material is definitely a lot more work than teaching Stanford students, but it’s been so much fun.”
She recalls working with one soft-spoken student who is sharp as a tack but has organizational challenges typical for 15-year-olds. Despite clearly understanding the material, the student didn’t do well in the first few assignments, forgetting to hand in required supporting files. “We had to say over and over to pay attention to the instructions,” she recalls. When midway through the course, the student submitted all the parts of an assignment and aced it, Thadhani was ecstatic. “I was like, ‘this is the best news ever!’,” she said. “I texted Lindsay immediately, ‘You won’t believe this! You won’t believe this! [This student] got a near-perfect score. I'm so happy. I could die!’ She texted me back, "Okay, Elina, calm down.’
“You get very invested,” Thadhani says.
At the last section on Dec. 13, after the surprise thank you and after the lesson with COVID-19 data, Thadhani tells the students that they had accomplished so much and that they are ready for the final later that week. She says she will post a few more videos to help them study and to email her with last-minute questions.
With the section coming to a close, the teacher, Humphrey, asks students to go around the circle, each saying one word summarizing their experience in the class. “Impressive” is how Humphrey starts the ball rolling.
The students followed in rapid succession: “Difficult.” “Challenging.” “Exciting.” “Complex.” “Stressful.” “Grateful.” “Eye-opening.” “Painful.” “Fun.”
The last student ignores the word limit: “Beautifully amazing,” he says, “because we got to learn about computers and each other.”
It was left to Thadhani to wrap things up.
“Inspiring,” she says.
“It was an honor to be able to work with you.”
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