Harris County Department of Education’s (HCDE) Highpoint School East student Adrian Hall took first place in the high school category of the first-ever Coding for the Culture challenge, a music-focused STEM competition for Houston-area teens.
Hall, a senior from La Porte Independent School District, says the pivotal experience helped him see a bright future in coding.
“I never expected so much from Highpoint. They put an opportunity into my hands so that I can make my life way better than it was before,” said Hall. “I never would have seen this if it was in my face. I would never have picked up coding again if it wasn’t for me being here.”
The event invited teens, regardless of their level of coding experience, to compete with their class, coding clubs, or on their own from Jan. 1-Feb. 25 before sharing their final masterpieces on Feb 26. By design, many of the more than 50 participants were first-time coders, says Coding for the Culture co-founder Jocelyn McDonald, Ph.D.
According to McDonald—a STEM program director in Aldine Independent School District, podcaster, blogger, and the founder of the educator tech solutions company #TechItUp, LLC—only 51% of high schools in the U.S. offer computer science courses, which creates a “wide gap of representation in STEM in our country.” She wants to change that.
“Computer science is all around us, so it’s really important to give students these opportunities,” she said. “The twist is the culture part—bringing in music they like and listen to and people who look like them to dispel the idea that you have to look a certain way to be in the role and help them see this as something they can do, too.”
McDonald and event committee members strived to make the students feel welcomed and special, offering breakfast and lunch, swag bags, prizes, a DJ and emcee, and a “playground of STEM” activities, including flying drones, coding obstacle courses, and BrainPad STEM MicroComputers provided by event sponsor Microsoft. The competition took place on the 26th floor of 609 Main at Texas, a 48-story skyscraper flaunting floor-to-ceiling windows at the corner of Main and Texas streets in downtown Houston.
For his achievement, Hall was awarded an Amazon gift card and studio time with event emcee, local actor and artist Kalum “Kdog” Johnson, who offered to rap on Hall’s winning beat.
Hall, still reeling from the experience, shares how Coding for the Culture filled him with confidence, pride, and hope.
“The hosts and adults supervising were great. The food was amazing. There were surprisingly a lot of kids there, and it made me think that maybe we—my generation—actually have something,” he said. “I feel like we might change the world if we just take the right steps and opportunities.”
Highpoint initially caught wind of the Beats by Us Challenge through conversations between Principal Courtney Waters and Julia Andrews, director of HCDE’s Center for Safe and Secure Schools (CSSS) and president of the Houston Area Alliance of Black School Educators (HAABSE), one of the event sponsors.
Hall possessed basic coding experience from his eighth-grade computer science class, but only became aware of the competition about a month ago thanks to the collaboration of his principal with HCDE staff. He thanks his teacher, Jon-Erik Price, for encouraging him to persevere even when other students dropped out of the competition due to the complexity of coding.
Price and Highpoint, says Hall, are unlike other educators and schools he’s experienced before.
“Highpoint knows that they have kids in struggling environments, and they’ve taken the initiative to try to help us, and that says something to me,” said Hall. “There’s a difference between saying you care and showing you care, and I feel like that’s what they’re doing. I feel accepted. The thing I did to get in here wasn’t good, but seeing all the opportunities that have come my way, this is honestly a blessing from God.”
Waters shared her favorite moment from the whole day happened as the celebrations slowed, and she, Price, and Hall readied to leave. As they stepped into the elevator, Hall turned to her and said, “Thank you so much for providing me with this opportunity. I’ve made a decision that this is what I want to do.”
“It made my heart smile,” said Waters. “Sometimes in our profession, we wonder if we are making an impact, and I knew in that moment we had. Adrian is proof that you never know which opportunity may be that ‘one.’”