CS+Social Good looks to consolidate student activism in computer science

Feb. 19, 2015, 5:55 p.m.

Computer science is the most popular subject at Stanford, with hundreds of students choosing it as a major or creating new apps and start-ups. Some CS students, however, see the tech culture on campus as too focused on superficial projects. A new student group called CS + Social Good is working on fixing that.

“I was really disillusioned with the CS department on campus,” said Theodora Chu ’17, a board member of CS + Social Good. “I felt like…there wasn’t really a lot of push to understand the applications of CS in a socially relevant way,” she added.

Although CS + Social Good is not yet recognized as an official student organization by the university, its board hopes to become official in the spring. For now, the group has been working on gauging campus interest and connecting CS students who are involved in social justice.

Previous efforts to combine computer science and activism were mostly the work of many different, isolated groups, said Lawrence Murata ’17, one of the co-presidents of CS + Social Good.

One such student group is the Lean In Circle for CS at Stanford, which was founded by Patricia Perozo ’17, who is also the group’s current leader.

“Lean In Circles are underneath the umbrella of the Lean In Organization founded by Sheryl Sandberg…and the point of Lean In Circles is to provide a peer group support and mentorship space,” said Perozo. According to Perozo, Stanford’s Lean In Circle focuses on issues specific to minorities more broadly in computer science.

Perozo added that although the Lean In Circle is not explicitly designed to promote activism, it inherently attracts people who are interested in combining CS and social justice.

“All the people in the group are all excited about activism in CS,” Perozo said. “It’s not a prerequisite, but the people that are attracted to the group are people that tend to be related to social good in CS and activism in CS, so we do a lot of things related to that.”

Murata got the idea to create a single group connecting all of those efforts from a CS class he took last year, when the professor, Keith Schwarz, mentioned that there wasn’t a strong community for people interested in combining CS and social justice.

“The idea behind the group is simply to motivate people to do projects that are socially relevant,” said Manu Chopra ’17, the other co-president of CS + Social Good. Chopra added that finding internships and opportunities to combine CS and social justice have proved difficult for him in the past, and he wants to make that process more accessible for other students in the future.

One way that CS + Social Good is working towards its goals is by creating a community of people who are interested in the topic. The group held a mixer earlier this year as a first step towards building that community and facilitating conversation between the separate organizations and students who are working on CS + Social Good projects.

“We thought the first thing that would be good was just to get everyone in a room together that was interested in this,” Chu explained. The group wanted to “get ideas going about…what projects people were working on [and] what people would like to see happen at Stanford,” she said.

Looking forward, the CS + Social Good organization also wants to involve members of the community who are not studying computer science.

“We don’t want this to just be a group that serves the technical community and the CS community, even though that’s really big at Stanford,” said Vicki Niu ’18, a board member of CS + Social Good. “We also really want to be reaching out to people who are coming from a social impact or social justice background, and maybe looking to see how they can leverage technology or how they can move into computer science.”

“It’s really important to bring together not only the CS community with each other but also with people from other fields, in mixers, in discussion sessions, in brainstorming sessions, to see how CS can connect,” said Megan Potoski ’16, another member of the CS + Social Good board.

One way the group is looking to do that is to implement events aside from the mixers.

“We’re hoping to do biweekly discussion sessions about topics at the intersection of tech and social issues,” Niu said. The idea is that discussion would help to truly bring people of different backgrounds to a better mutual understanding of various issues.

The CS + Social Good group hopes that through building community and creating projects, Stanford students will be able to find a way to make meaningful change in the world through computer science.

“It’s really important that we take all of these really bright minds…and apply all of those skills toward something that ends up creating more benefit,” Niu said. “I think a lot of the apps that you see and a lot of the products that are released are great, but they add a marginal benefit to people whose quality of life is already pretty high. I think that there are some really cool problems out there, and we just need to mobilize people around solving them.”


Contact Sarah Wishingrad at [email protected]

This post has been updated. A previous version referenced Theodora Chu as Theo Chu. The Daily regrets this error.

Sarah Wishingrad '18 is a former Desk Editor for the University/Local beat. She is a History major from Los Angeles, California who loves politics, the waffles at Coupa, and all things Jane Austen. Ask her about her dog, Hamilton, at swishing 'at' stanford.edu.

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