Computational Thinking and Equity

An Online Tapia Camp for 7th–12th Graders

By: Paul Hand, Juan Pablo Vielma, Leticia Velazquez, and Richard Tapia

“I believe this camp has changed my view of when computers should be used in society since I have never focused my attention on algorithms and equity. It was very interesting to see how both play a role together to create the society we live in today.” –

Camper who received a scholarship from INFORMS

This summer, the Tapia Center at Rice University delivered an online summer camp called Computational Thinking and Equity as part of its yearly Tapia Camp programs. This program met for 2 hours a day for 5 days. There were 98 7th-12th graders who completed the program. Primarily they attended from Texas, though some campers attended from other states and countries. A DEI Ambassador award from INFORMS provided scholarships for 16 campers who otherwise would not have been able to participate in the program. Of these campers, 56% are women and 94% are members of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM). The generous support offered by the INFORMS DEI Ambassador program made it possible to develop the program curriculum, which will continue to be used in future Tapia Camps.

The camp curriculum was developed as a collaboration between the Tapia Center at Rice University, including Dr. Paul Hand, Dr. Leticia Velazquez, and Dr. Richard Tapia; and the Operations Research Team at Google, including Christian Tjandraatmadja, Daniel Duque, Emily Masten, and Dr. Juan Pablo Vielma.
In the program, campers are given a spreadsheet of applicants to a fictional college. Their task is to design and implement an algorithm to decide who should get admitted. The challenge is that their algorithm should be as ‘equitable’ as possible, as interpreted by each camper based on readings, classroom discussion, and their lived experience. This is no easy task as campers must take care not to inadvertently introduce their own biases into their algorithm. As one camper said, “It is tricky to put an algorithm in the computer and not accidentally put something in.” At the end of the week, students presented their algorithms, how they interpreted the notion of equity, and how equitable they believed their algorithm was. Students also get the opportunity to interact with college and graduate students, along with STEM professionals and Dr. Richard Tapia, recipient of the National Medal of Science.

“It is tricky to put an algorithm in the computer and not accidentally put something in.” – Camper who received an INFORMS scholarship

Campers implemented their algorithm in Google sheets. They were provided data from 1000 hypothetical students, including academic attributes (e.g. GPA, class rank, SAT score, etc.), demographic attributes (e.g. gender, race, ethnicity), and other attributes (e.g. rating of extracurriculars, rating of recommendation letters, whether family obligations prevented the applicant from extracurricular participation). Campers devised a formula that assigned points to each applicant, and the applicants with the most points were admitted.
Just as the campers had to sift through their applicant pools, the Tapia Center had its own process for selecting students to receive scholarships. To find applicants, the Tapia Center coordinated with school districts to disseminate information about the opportunity to their students. Interested students wrote responses to application questions; scholarships were awarded with an emphasis on maximizing diversity, including geographic diversity.
To construct their formulas, campers learned about spreadsheets, logicals such as AND and OR, and conditionals. Campers also read and discussed articles about the history of Affirmative Action in education and about the arguments for and against using the SAT in college admissions. Several camper algorithms are shown below.

Julianna, 12th grade

Christopher, 11th grade

Ashton, 10th grade

egypt code
Egypt, 7th grade

There was also an incredible variety of algorithms proposed. Some used SAT test scores; some did not. Some directly factored in demographics information like gender, race, or ethnicity, whereas others did not. Some methods involved a strict ranking of students, and others involved a lottery. Additionally, each camper interpreted equity in their own way. While campers engaged in classroom discussions on the concept of equity, including ideas like disparate impact and disparate treatment, they provided their own interpretation of equity for the presentations, along with the metric they used to evaluate their algorithm. Here is how several campers interpreted the idea of equity:

  • The quality of being fair and impartial – Neriah, 7th grade
  • Everyone is provided with what they need to succeed – Valerie, 10th grade
  • Finding factors that contribute to success and factors that hinder it and putting that into consideration when selecting students from different backgrounds – Kevin, 12th grade
  • Right discrepancies and aid those who need assistance in order to have beneficial opportunities. Reward effort and talent. - Judith, 12th grade

Many campers assessed the equitability of algorithms based on the similarity in demographic statistics between the admitted students and the applicant pool. Other campers intentionally sought not to mirror the applicant statistics in order to make up for societal barriers that lead to fewer applications from certain groups. 

In addition to providing experience in STEM to participants from underrepresented groups, the program also contributed to the career development of eight instructors. The instructors were current or recent undergraduate and graduate STEM students. Five of the instructors were women, and the instructors came from a variety of racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic backgrounds. These instructors received training, mentorship, and experience in STEM, teaching, and aspects of diversity, equity, and inclusion.   

The Tapia Center plans to continue offering a Computational Thinking and Equity program in the future. To find out more information about the programs, go to or email  We are always looking for participants, undergraduate and graduate instructors, and postdocs, professors, and industry professionals to share the excitement of a life in STEM. 

Over 88% of participants with INFORMS scholarships said the program helped them think more deeply about equity.