Former engineer and STEM educator, Assemblywoman Luz Rivas is now a state legislator, nonprofit founder and computer science education advocate. She recently gave the keynote address at the Summer of CS Virtual Kickoff Event, to talk about her own experience of computer science education and how it led to a career in STEM. Watch the keynote address or read the transcript below.
I'm Assemblywoman Luz Rivas. I represent the 39th Assembly District, which is the Northern city limits of Los Angeles and the East San Fernando Valley. I'm honored to be a keynote speaker for the Summer of CS. As some of you may know, I was an engineer prior to becoming a state representative. I've also been a STEM educator and the founder of a nonprofit in my community.
When I was in fifth grade, I first was introduced to computer science. We had an Apple 2E computer in my classroom back in 1984, when none of us had computers at home, and there was no internet access or cell phones. I just thought it was a fun classroom activity, and we were learning to program in basic on computers that just had a green cursor, and you had to type in everything you wanted it to do, not even a mouse to control. I really got excited about programming these machines—I thought it was a new technology. And then my teacher told me that this was a career, and that maybe I should consider studying computer science and doing this as a career in the future.
I thought it was just a classroom toy. I didn't know that you can get paid to do this! I took computer science in middle school and high school, which at the time Los Angeles Unified Schools offered as an elective. It led me on a path of choosing STEM as a career. I ended up going to MIT and ended up studying electrical engineering. It all started with educators like you. What you're doing really makes a difference for young children.
So when I came back to the San Fernando Valley, after being away for a long time, I visited my elementary school and realized that kids were not being introduced to computer science and STEM in elementary. It really disappointed me because I know that if I hadn't had that early experience, I would not have moved on to study engineering in college.
Investing in access to computer science at the early ages, especially elementary school, is very important to me. And it's something that California is behind on. It's such a great opportunity when kids are engaged and excited to learn about technology—especially now kids are using cell phones and playing video games—lots of connections can be made with how these things are created. And so my vision is for every child to see himself or herself as a creator of technology and not just a user of the technology. This is one of the reasons that I started my nonprofit, DIY Girls, which is focused on getting young girls of color into STEM.
I started DIY Girls eight years ago. I met a lot of young girls like me who didn't have access to enrichment programs that offered the types of STEM activities that DIY Girls offers to them for free. When I was a kid, my mom couldn’t afford to send me to any type of camp or after school program that charged a fee—things like that are not accessible to all. So thanks to all of the donors and foundations that contributed to my nonprofit, I was able to offer girls high quality STEM instruction at no cost to them. And now the very first class of girls that I worked with when they were in elementary school are now graduating high school, and many of them are going on to college and they are choosing computer science, engineering, environmental careers—lots of diverse STEM fields that they otherwise would have never had access to. It's important that we don't rely only on enrichment programs that charge parents a fee or a summer camp that charges. We have to be able to offer this to children that can't afford these opportunities.
As an engineer, an educator, and now policy maker, I know the value of investing in our educators so that they can invest in our children. For me, what's most important is that we invest in communities of color and low income communities that are often the last to get these resources—they should be the first to get them. And so I really believe that this helps kids connect to a future career and potentially get out of poverty, which is something that really helped me as an engineer right away. I got a job out of college and was able to help my family—we didn't own a house, my sister didn't go to college. So as the first person in my family to go to college and have a STEM career, I right away had a well paying job that also helped my family. And I think that's the message that's important to communicate with children from low income communities is that this is not just for them, that it's for their families and their community, which is my direct experience.
I really want to continue my work now that I'm in the state legislature to make sure that California invests in computer science at all levels. I know that you're already doing a lot of the work and now it's my turn in in the state legislature to work with my colleagues to make sure that this is a priority for our state.
Earlier this year I held an informational hearing as chair of the Select Committee on STEM and the Assembly. The hearing was entitled Debugging Computer Science in California: Reclaiming our Role as a National Leader in STEM. At this hearing, I convened computer science leaders from across our nation to explore ways that we can work together to improve California’s STEM outcome. We had a diverse set of panelists from industry experts to educators, and we even had Julie Flapan from CSforCA join us. We discussed introducing legislation to improve computer science policies in California, however, because of COVID-19, our legislation has been shelved so we can focus on our response to this crisis. But I'm dedicated to continue working on this in the years to come to make sure that there is a foundation and framework for computer science, for both our students and educators in California.
I’m excited to be here today to further explore how we can work together to improve California STEM outcomes. I really believe that computer science teaches essential skills for our students, not only to thrive in our 21st century society, but to help alleviate themselves and their family out of poverty, and develop computational and critical thinking and problem solving skills—all of which are foundational knowledge for every student regardless of their occupation. So what I would always tell young people, learning computer science now doesn't mean that you're going to be a computer scientist in the future, but it will help you in any career. And I really believe that educators can help young children see that and make it more concrete with examples.
Thank you for everything you do as computer science educators. I know all of you are very dedicated to advancing the computer science education field in California. You're all leaders, and we're going to work together to make sure that every child in California has access to computer science. I look forward to working with all of you to implement computer science standards for California.
This is the reason Summer of CS is so important. If we don't give our educators the resources they need to succeed, our students will never have these opportunities. So I think of my own experience. My fifth grade teacher was taking computer science classes at Cal State Northridge and was encouraged to teach her ten-year-old students in the 1980’s to learn computer science. She took a risk, she did it, and it worked. We liked it! So I really hope that you see the difference that you're making today. Programs like Summer of CS are a unique approach to expand computer science professional development—how do we scale this and sustain it? I'm so excited to see this event enter a second year—congratulations to everyone who organized this. I hope that this model of professional development will be replicated throughout our state. I look forward to learning what we can do as state legislators to make sure that we are able to scale this model so it could reach more educators across the state. Thank you for everything you're doing in computer science education for California's children.