Early in the morning on the day after the presidential election, over 100 NYC educators gathered in Google's New York City office for Cornell Tech's third annual To Code and Beyond conference. This year's theme: CS at Play.
The group was sleep-deprived from a late night of watching polling numbers come in, and yet surprisingly energized, ready to share their experiences on how to effectively ignite children's passion for computer science.
“It's a little hard to get up in the morning on a morning like this," said Deputy Mayor for Strategic Policy Initiatives Richard Buery, “but at the end of the day, [this conference] really reinforces why this work is so important."
Out of 1.1 million public school students in New York City, only five percent are receiving any computer science education. And considering the growing need for a technologically savvy workforce, this is a huge problem.
“How do we spark a love of computers and technology among our young people?" Buery asked. “The economy demands our young people grow these skills. How do you create excitement?"
That's where Cornell Tech and a handful of partners, including Google, Two Sigma and CSNYC come in.
Despite being a graduate campus, Cornell Tech is committed to K-12 tech education. Teaching and inspiring NYC youth are paramount to the school's mission — one of the school's first hires was Diane Levitt to direct its K-12 initiative.
“K-12 education is core to what we're doing at Cornell Tech," said Founding Dean and Vice Provost Dan Huttenlocher. “It isn't outreach or an add on. It's core to what makes Cornell Tech work."
Bringing Computer Science to Every Child
Computer science classes have been offered to a small percentage of predominantly affluent and high-achieving high school students for the last 35 years. But last year, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the city's effort to even the playing field for all students with the creation of a 10-year, $80 million, public and private partnership called Computer Science for All.
“The City of New York put an ambitious stake in the ground," said Levitt. “Computer science for every student, regardless of age, gender, race, geography, achievement, ability, or frankly even interest."
But how? Levitt has found herself venturing into some uncharted territory.
“I like to say that Cornell Tech is looking for computing experiences at the intersection of rigor and joy—what some people call hard fun. The afterschool space is an ideal canvas for this kind of learning,” said Levitt. “But one thing I realized coming to NYC as an outsider was that, partly because of different funding streams, what happens at school for students before 3 p.m., and what happens to those same students in the same building after 3 p.m. often have nothing to do with each other," she explained, referring to the disconnect between in-school programming, supported by the NYC Department of Education, and after-school programming, supported by the NYC Department of Youth and Community Development.
“So many constraints conspire against collaboration between in-school and after-school programs," Levitt said. "But there are huge opportunity costs due to this lack of coordination."
Pairing In-School and After-School Computer Science
At To Code and Beyond, educators from both in-school and after-school programs discussed their strategies teaching a wide swatch of New York City youth. They found that, most often, progress was made when they joined forces.
According to Chris Whipple, the vice president of programs at ExpandEd Schools, training in-school and after-school educators together, so that they can co-plan and co-teach, is a promising strategy.
"We think [co-training] serves a lot of positive ends," Whipple said. "It certainly gives teachers more play time and builds the capacity of after-school staff by aligning with the school day."
Both in-school and after-school teachers at ExpandEd Schools have the opportunity to attend a five-day training over the summer through the STEM Educators Academy, in which they learn design-based activities that they can co-lead before and after the bell rings at 3 p.m.
However, many speakers at To Code and Beyond noted some challenges they faced when bringing CS programs to schools that didn't have them before. Often it was hard to find not only funding, but teachers for computer science classes. Sometimes teachers with no CS experience were asked to teach coding classes to their students.
“Teachers are feeling stressed," said David Baiz, the principal of Global Tech Prep. “There's a lot going on in their lives and they are trying to do it all. So having partnerships to expand the learning and make sure learning comes alive in a more realistic way outside the classroom with community partners is just essential with the vision of my school."
And collaboration between community partners and schools plays a fundamental role in bringing computer science to underrepresented groups.
According to Sunset Spark co-founder Gaelen Haddlett, when his program began offering an after-school robotics club at a school, the initial gender breakdown was 30 percent girls, 70 percent boys. But after Sunset Spark began teaching in-school classes to students — and not just advanced classes — that changed. “When we did re-enrollment, we had 60 percent girls and 40 percent boys," said Haddlett.
CS can be self-selecting: kids who aren't exposed to it early are unlikely to be enthusiastic about the subject later on. Encouraging teachers, early programming, and summer programs may be crucial to evening out the technology gender divide.
“We found that if we take action in middle school, high school, and college, [we] could increase women in the workforce from 1.2 million today to 3.9 million by 2025," said Deborah Singer, VP of marketing and communications for Girls Who Code. “That would grow the share of women in the computer workforce from 24 percent today to 39 percent [in 2025]."
Teaching Through Play
But exposing students to computer science is only the first hurdle. Once they're in the classroom, keyboard in hand, how do you inspire them to learn?
One tactic that’s working for some educators is putting code into context.
“When you take young people from a wide variety of backgrounds, they have an intrinsic curiosity not about code, but about the world around them," said Cornell Tech associate professor Tapan Parikh.
Parikh suggests telling students that, through coding, they'll learn how the things they own — like their phones — work. "We've found that drives incredible curiosity and engagement among kids."
That's part of the reason play has become such a big component of teaching computer science in the classroom. Creating engaging, meaningful, playful learning experiences is one way to encourage this play, even if these so-called “unplugged” activities seem to have nothing to do with computing.
Google's Errol King, for instance, often incorporates improvisational games and kinesthetic movement into his lessons.
“We play with them and that allows for us to go into conversations and understand who they are," said King. “So when they are at the brink of understanding a new concept, we know the best question to ask them to get them to reflect in that moment. So that we can get them to the point where they say, 'Oh, I get that.'"