Sylvia Aguiñaga Brings Digital Literacy to the Masses
Sylvia Cecilia Aguiñaga

“Our world is increasingly run by software, and we need more diversity in the people who are building it.”
Sylvia Cecilia Aguiñaga
East Hollywood, California
MLIS Student, Expected Graduation May 2016

Sylvia Aguiñaga is possibly the world’s biggest supporter of digital literacy. “I’ve always been an educator in some capacity,” Aguiñaga says, “and I’ve always seen libraries as magical safe havens.”

A self-taught coder pursuing her MLIS degree with a focus on public librarianship, Aguiñaga brings her love of technology and education to her job as director of curriculum for DIY Girls, a nonprofit that provides hands-on tech experiences for young girls in the San Fernando Valley of Los Angeles. And that’s not all: as a special projects intern at Los Angeles' Central Public Library, Aguiñaga helped create a coding curriculum that will be implemented at local schools and libraries.

In her spare time, Aguiñaga maintains her website, Create With Computers, which provides resources and inspiration for aspiring coders and those who teach coding. But her weakness is creating online animated games, music and video through Scratch, the free programming language and online community aimed at kids, loved by kids at heart. And she’s taking that exuberance and energy to the front lines of digital access empowerment.

Code Is for Everyone
Aguiñaga started coding as an indoor activity escape from the humid summers in Japan, where she lived for two years teaching English with her husband. “I got a book and studied on my own, became obsessed, and made a website with geometric figures," she says. "I became so excited and it sparked me thinking—I could teach this to kids!”

Aguiñaga credits her family with fostering a passion for serving diverse communities. “I grew up in Santa Ana, and it’s 80 percent Latino,” she explains. “My dad always taught me to respect everyone, no matter who they are or what they look like... Everyone has a story, and to be able to listen and help is one of the best things, one of the best feelings.”

When she returned to California from Japan, Aguiñaga learned about DIY Girls and connected with founder and executive director Luz Rivas. The rest is history.

“We're located in schools in predominantly Latino areas of Los Angeles,” Aguiñaga says of DIY Girls. “Our mission is to get girls excited about technology, computers and engineering.” Their The DIY Girl: DIYGirls.orgafter-school programs start with students in fifth grade and continue to provide engaging experiences throughout high school.

Eschewing the traditional recruitment methods like flyers and speeches, and keeping in mind that most of the girls they’re reaching out to haven’t given much thought to engineering or technology, the group instead hosts recruitment workshops where the girls create a hands-on project, usually involving squishy circuits, batteries and LED. The results are enlightening: “We have absolutely no problem getting girls to sign up,” Aguiñaga confirms. “We want to act as a support system, be technology role models, and encourage girls to be technology role models for their own community.”

“We teach girls the possibilities of using technology with fashion,” she explains, noting that the ten-year-olds love what they can create. “We have them program their own video games using Scratch; we use real electronic components, transistors, and teach them in a way that’s fun and exciting. The main thing is to express how fun this can be. Yes, it will get harder, but it’s important to teach the possibilities of what we can do with technology while they’re young.”

The Power of Libraries
“I love libraries,” Aguiñaga says, “But I also love the impact that you have as a librarian: you have access to the public, you can make up programming, and if the community wants it and you have the will, you can make it happen."

One of the projects Aguiñaga recently made happen is Coder Time, a weekly library club and after-school program intended to introduce code to kids as “a tool that lets you create anything you can imagine.” Coder Time is funded by Aguiñaga's frequent collaborator, children’s librarian Joanna Fabicon, through a Eureka! Leadership Grant. The duo partnered with LA’s Best, a program that provides “safe and supervised after-school education,” and that wanted to jumpstart their digital literacy platforms.

Conscious of her community's needs, Aguiñaga plans to move forward with Coder Time by translating the curriculum into Spanish and creating a national platform. She and Fabicon gave a panel presentation at the 2015 ALA annual conference, “After Access: Libraries and Digital Empowerment.

Her hard work in support of public libraries has paid off in other ways: in Spring 2015 Aguiñaga received the iSchool's Librarian Opportunity Scholarship and the Thea Estricher scholarship for aspiring public librarians, and recently she learned she was awarded an ALA Spectrum Scholarship.

“It’s very motivating!” Aguiñaga enthuses. “Someone is recognizing all of the work I do, and it makes me keep going.”

DIY girls doing it for themselves. (DIYgirls.org)

After graduation, Aguiñaga’s dream is to continue with DIY Girls and eventually become a children’s librarian. She’d like to see libraries really embrace the digital literacy movement, and will continue her own coding education through classes and boot camps.

“Knowing how to code can empower you because it helps traditional barriers to achievement disappear,” she says. “True digital empowerment is the unleashing of the values, talents and voices of Latino and Black communities as tech plays an ever-greater role in everyone’s lives. Our world is increasingly run by software, and we need more diversity in the people who are building it.”

The MLIS degree, coding and teaching will allow this superstar to bring digital literacy to youth, while supporting parents’ efforts to continue the learning process at home. Aguiñaga is taking charge of her future, and her story is writing itself.