By Erin Baudo Felter
Much of the change needed to make the tech industry more diverse and inclusive has to happen inside of companies — new hiring practices, culture shifts. But, there’s another strategy: invest in preparing diverse students — early — for careers in tech.
Nowhere is this conversation happening with more heat than here in San Francisco. And the school district is bullish about the role that their students have to play. “It’s simple,” they say. “The diversity is already here. Invest in preparing our students for tech jobs. Then hire them. That’s how we start to change the game.”
And, new research by McKinsey and Facebook backs up this strategy. They found that a key reason more young women and students of color aren’t accessing CS is not that they aren’t aware of it — but that they simply aren’t interested in trying. For girls, this problem is compounded by a notable lack of confidence when compared to their male classmates.
If one of the biggest barriers is that students don’t have a reason to try CS, then we’ve found at least one solution to it: let them make games.
“Tech companies, working in partnership with educators, can play a vital role in shaping curriculum and instruction that truly prepares students for future career possibilities.” — SFUSD Superintendent Richard Carranza
Several years ago, our team at Zynga.org met with SFUSD to figure out how we could help support local tech education efforts. We listened to what the schools and students needed. Then we looked at what we had to offer. The result was the formation of a new collaboration to bring the SFUSD-Zynga.org High School Game Design Academy (GDAs) to life.
“CODING is required for GAMES!” — Jimmy, Thurgood Marshall HS
What started as a small founding class of 36 students in 2013, has now grown to a corps of more than 200 students who are learning the fundamentals of CS through game development. Throughout the school year, Zynga employees and industry professionals work with students on all aspects of game development including design, prototyping and pitching.
These are not just any students. Many of them are females and students of color — students that are underrepresented in traditional CS courses. They are the students we want to reach and they are signing up, in part, because making games is fun. And, thanks to a team of passionate teachers, principals, administrators, nonprofit partners and our volunteer game makers from Zynga, they’re also getting important exposure to tech jobs and industry mentorship.
GDA students first meet our Zynga game makers during our annual Fall Game Jam, working with mentors to develop, prototype and pitch original game concepts in a 3 hour hackathon-style event. This year, thanks to collaboration with Salesforce.org and Mission Bit, we expanded our Game Jams to more schools as a way to generate interest in CS courses that will be offered next year.
What we found was striking. After prototyping their own game concepts with tech industry volunteers and getting just 60 minutes of hands-on work manipulating actual game code, 80% of students said they liked CS more than they did before. In addition, 25% stated a direct intention to sign up for a CS course offering during the summer and/or the following year. We even heard one student, in the middle of a workshop, exclaim with surprise and delight, “Wow, I’m really good at coding!” Win.
What makes this so important is that, thanks to partnership with the school in recruiting for the event, nearly half of the participants were females and students of color. If we can meaningfully start to change the enrollment mix of these courses with just 3 hours of hands on time (and fun!), then it’s clear games are a hook we should be taking more advantage of.
“I was very surprised by the amount of women at Zynga. I am very happy that there were lots of women working in the game industry. It gave me hope to possibly pursue a career in this industry.” — Joanne, Balboa HS
Getting students interested in programming is only part of the equation. Students also need the right exposure to career opportunities to make themselves ‘job ready.’ This is where companies and volunteers can play an important role.
Last week, we hosted our 3rd annual GDA Career Day at Zynga HQ. 100 students spent the day with 50 Zynga leaders to learn firsthand what it means to work in tech and games.
The focus was not on talks and tours. It was on students directing their own experiences, getting their hands dirty with art, design and code, and then reflecting on how it relates back to their own career aspirations. The event also opened students’ eyes to the vast array of job opportunities in games and tech. Programming and art, yes, but also analytics, user insights and product management.
The impact on career confidence was dramatic. Prior to the event, only 7% of students were “very confident” in their job-ready skills. One-third of students were “not very confident.” After just 6 hours with our Zynga mentors, including one-on-one time to review student resumes and engage in mock interviews, the outcome flipped — 38% became “very confident” in their ability while just 2% remained “not very confident.” Overall, nearly 90% of students said they were more confident interacting with professionals after the event.
It’s clear to us that games can be a spark that generates student interest in CS. And that when that spark is matched with a connection to real-world professionals and mentors, it can also drive huge gains in student confidence. But, what’s even more exciting is the potential we see for games to connect the dots for students in terms of their other interests and passions — and the skills they’ll need for tomorrow’s jobs. Games can marry art and engineering but also teach students about the importance of failure and persistence; creativity and collaboration. For us, as a mission-driven organization, there is perhaps no greater form of social impact than putting students on a path to a rewarding career. We see games as a powerful gateway to making that happen.
“Thinking about my career, it was always overwhelming because I wanted to do so many things. I wanted to be an artist, a musician, a fashion designer, a writer. I could never make up my mind. But when I discovered gaming, it made me realize I could do all of those things as a game designer. I could write the story for the game, design the characters and their outfits, develop the music for the game, and even code it. It was everything I loved to do together in one place.” —Alexandra, Balboa HS