People in Your Neighborhood: La Jolla teen’s code is teaching computer science to students less fortunate

Bishop’s School senior Athena Hernandez teaches computer science online to public school students in Tijuana.
La Jollan Athena Hernandez, a senior at The Bishop’s School, teaches computer science online to public school students in Tijuana.
(Courtesy of Athena Hernandez)

Since she began high school at The Bishop’s School in La Jolla, Athena Coco Hernandez has run a coding program for children who lack access to such a class otherwise.

Her program, called “Codificar con Coco,” which translates from Spanish as “Coding with Coco,” teaches coding in the computer languages Python and Switch to students at public elementary and middle schools in Tijuana.

Athena, a 17-year-old senior who is bilingual in English and Spanish and is of Mexican descent, also tutors students from public schools in Chula Vista and San Ysidro.

“My goal is to make computer science more accessible” to those less fortunate, the La Jolla resident said. “At Bishop’s I have this great opportunity of taking four years of computer science in high school.”

Athena said non-English-speakers find coding difficult because of a lack of opportunities to learn it.

Also, coding language commands are written in English, meaning “you have to teach English at the same time,” she said.

Athena teaches virtual coding sessions weekly, and more often during summer breaks.

For her efforts, which she estimates total 600 to 700 hours so far, Athena was selected earlier this year by the National Center for Women & Information Technology as one of 40 Aspirations in Computing winners from among more than 3,700 applicants nationwide.

According to the award website, recipients are chosen based on “their aptitude and aspirations in technology and computing, as demonstrated by their computing experience, computing-related activities, leadership experience, tenacity in the face of barriers to access, and plans for postsecondary education.”

The recognition gave Athena the “confidence to continue pursuing what I’m doing,” as well as opportunities to connect with girls with similar goals, she said.

Codificar con Coco evolved out of the Global Milestone club, which Athena co-founded with fellow Bishop’s students Crystal Li, Will Keefe and Sasha Berger in spring 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. The club is an online platform that provides tutoring and other academic resources for students around the world.

Global Milestone’s efforts are ongoing, but Athena soon launched her coding program to focus on teaching computer science in Spanish.

Her father works at a hospital in Tijuana, so Athena advertised the coding program there. She offered it free of charge to enrollees.

“I don’t want people to pay, because education should be free,” Athena said.

Athena plans to pursue computer science in some manner in college, having participated in cybersecurity research in December through New York University. She said those plans will probably narrow to focus on improving access to computer science for Mexican and Spanish-speaking students.

Learning coding also can help close the disparity in math education between Tijuana and San Diego, since “computer science is math-heavy,” she said.

Athena’s coding classes began with three or four students each but have grown to include a dozen, with more waiting to participate.

The increased number of students is a challenge, she said. “If I make the class size bigger, I’m sacrificing everybody else’s level of understanding.”

She said she’s looking for others who are bilingual to help.

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