A rainy evening during finals week, after school got out for the day, eight Palo Alto high school students sat enraptured in a downtown office building, listening to software engineer Brandon Burr of Palantir talk about using his company's software as a means to combat homelessness.
The mini high-tech lecture ended, and the room fell silent as the students bent over laptops sitting on desks in front of them, returning to websites they've been building for several weeks with the guidance of Palantir employees.
These after-school classes, the result of a new partnership between the Palo Alto school district, Palantir and the City of Palo Alto, aim to teach a select group of low-income high school students how to code and about potential career paths in technology.
Three Palantir employees who were once teaching assistants (TAs) at Stanford University lead the 10-week computer-science class, which started this fall and will continue in the spring. The employees begin each two-hour class with a 20-minute talk that broadens the context of code, from what the Internet is and how it works to examples of work Palantir does in the outside world (two recent topics were the survey and management tool geared at ending homelessness and software used to prevent bank fraud).
These talks are about communicating to the students: "'You're here today, but this is how far it can go,'" Ari Gesher, a Palantir software engineer, said.
Fourteen Gunn and Palo Alto High School students were selected for the class after applying. Almost all are low-income and in the school district's Voluntary Transfer Program (VTP), which allows students who live in the Ravenswood City School District to attend Palo Alto schools. There's only one girl, but Palantir and the school district hope to attract more next semester by sending female engineers to talk to Paly and Gunn students about the class.
The structure of the class is also more forward-looking. They're taught using Code Academy, which offers free online coding curriculum that can be accessed anywhere, at any time -- meaning the students can log in and learn outside of the class. It's also self-guided, so students can move at their own pace. The Palantir instructors are there to support and answer questions rather than lecture from a podium.
Palo Alto High School senior Chris Garcia said he'd always been interested in coding but didn't feel like he had the background experience necessary to take a Paly computer-science course. The second he got a letter in the mail advertising the Palantir class, he knew it was an "opportunity he wanted to seize," he said.
"It's really great to be able to give back and instill some passion in these kids for what's going to make sense for them in terms of building a career," Gesher said. "What are the jobs of the future?"
In Palo Alto, this rings especially true under the new leadership of Superintendent Max McGee, who is very often heard saying that part and parcel the district's mission must be to prepare today's students for the jobs of the future -- jobs that don't exist.
"This partnership is an exemplary model and one that will help us address the opportunity and access gap that has existed in our district for too long," McGee wrote in an email. "I hope that other companies follow Palantir's lead or think of additional innovative ideas to serve our students who are so hungry to learn."