A student learns basic programming skills at CODe at College of the Desert. Credit: Cynthia Serna/College of the Desert

About 30 kids are typing away on laptops at round tables inside an air-conditioned classroom in the heart of the College of the Desert campus in Palm Desert.

Little round discs called “circuit playgrounds” are plugged into their computers. The devices blink on and off with red, green and blue lights in sync with siren noises going off in rhythmic patterns. Four young adults keep their eyes spotted for raised hands as the kids type combinations of letters, numbers and punctuation marks.

To the untrained eye, it looks like cats walked across these keyboards. But as these students learned this week, this is a coding language called Python that’s frequently used in computer programming.

The CODe program at College of the Desert provides free computer science and coding lessons to students age 10 to 18 during one-week summer sessions. Beyond the technical skills, students learn about job opportunities in the technology field. They also get exposed to what community colleges can provide. And, best of all for parents, it’s a free way for kids to get out of the house during the long summer months.

Professor Felix Marhuenda-Donate has been teaching at COD for more than 15 years. During his tenure, he has gotten to know most of the school districts across the California desert via partnerships and dual-enrollment programs. He noticed how some schools have more advanced computer information systems (CIS) programs than others, and wanted to devise a way to reach those underserved kids. He always noticed when it came time to recruit COD students, many didn’t consider computer science as a potential career path.

“The answer was always middle school: You have to reach out to the younger kids and scaffold them up to college,” he said. “But there were some schools that weren’t offering it, because they couldn’t.”

Five years later, CODe has grown from only being offered at the COD campus to spending a week at spots all over the desert. One session is still offered on campus, while “CODe on the Road” sessions throughout the summer make it easier for working parents who live in farther reaches of the desert.

For the first time this year, the program is being offered at the James O. Jessie Desert Highland Unity Center in Palm Springs through a partnership with the Desert Highland Gateway Estates Community Action Association, which advocates for community interests in the historically Black neighborhoods.

Additionally, CODe will be offered at West Shores High School in Salton City for a week this August. Other sessions are planned in Desert Hot Springs, Coachella and Mecca/Thermal.

“We’ve got a lot of land to cover out here,” he said.

Getting the program to this scale has involved some trial and error. Marhuenda-Donate said this year, he and his team have passed out fliers to help spread the word in lower income neighborhoods. Working families may not be as likely to see all the updates from Peachjar, the online announcement service used by many schools.

“We weren’t really getting parents who work all the time,” he said. “We have to meet them where they are.”

The program is funded by the College of the Desert Foundation, thanks in part to a donation from Edison International, and is relatively low cost: For about $40,000 a summer, the five weeks of sessions can reach roughly 225 students. Demand is surging: About 125 students applied for the first week of the session, though about 45 seats are available each week.

Professor Felix Marhuenda-Donate instructs during a session of CODe at College of the Desert. Credit: Cynthia Serna/College of the Desert

Marhuenda-Donate hopes his program can serve as a model for how to create pipelines for diverse tech talent. The industry is largely white and male; Deloitte Global estimates just 33% of jobs at large technology companies are held by women, with 25% in technical roles.

And in 2019, though Black people made up 14% of the American population, they held just 7% of tech jobs, according to career site Zippia, while 62% of tech jobs were held by white people, 20% by Asian people, and 7% by Hispanic/Latinx people.

“They’re not getting those chances,” he said of underrepresented populations.

The disparity is often caused by a lack of exposure to the “behind the scenes” of tech early on, Marhuenda-Donate said. By running the CODe program in underserved communities, he hopes to disrupt the idea that working in tech is for “geniuses in hoodies.”

Given the demand for tech workers, it makes sense to promote the idea of working in computer science: Data from CyberSeek shows that the sector includes about 1 million workers in the U.S.—but that there are nearly 600,000 unfilled positions.

More broadly, Marhuenda-Donate hopes to create a pathway for kids to realize that college and high-paying careers are possibilities, whether in coding, tech—or anything else.

“As cheesy as it sounds, (it’s about) getting them to realize college is a possibility for them,” he said.

On the third day of this CODe session, siblings Colin, Liam and Emma, worked to figure out the Python assignment. Colin was playing with the code for the circuit playgrounds to make different color and sound combinations. Emma, 10, had completed hers and was quick to show a visitor some pictures of her hairless cats, Babushka and Voldemort, on her phone.

Colin, her older brother, said he likes how the course gets more challenging each day. With the confidence of a pro, he changed a “0” to a “255” in a few lines of code, and his circuit playground started flashing red instead of green.

It’s well past 9 a.m., and Colin said he’s glad to be here.

“If it wasn’t for this, I’d probably still be in bed,” he said.

Emma, though she wants to be a professional soccer player, said she likes having somewhere to go during the day.

Sounds like they’re learning something. As the great stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius wrote: “What do I have to complain of, If I’m going to do what I was born for—the things I was brought into the world to do? Or is this what I was created for? To huddle under the blankets and stay warm?”

Melissa Daniels is a writer and digital media consultant who has called the Coachella Valley home since 2019. She's originally from Rochester, N.Y., and spent several years covering state government and...