Computer Science Education: Creating a Meaningful Student Experience

Seven days, eight cities, 200+ students, and a whole lot of code. This past week was special; it was Computer Science Education Week (CS Ed Week), a nationwide celebration of computer science. However, how can you celebrate something you’ve never seen or had access to? 

During CS Ed Week, I traveled across the country, nearly 10,000 miles, to launch our LOFT Coding Boot Camps in eight schools as part of our Code as a Second Language Initiative (CSL) at the Hispanic Heritage Foundation. There was a common thread between all of the schools: a meaningful interest in bringing a comprehensive computer science program to their respective schools. More often than not, neither the administration nor the teachers knew where to start. Sadly, this is a common situation in most low-income schools across the nation. For this reason, I am humbled to lead a national effort to introduce computer science to as many people as possible and connect them to each other to create a network of computer science and technology enthusiasts.

Throughout my weeklong trip, I had the opportunity to engage with students who came from similar backgrounds yet, had significant differences when it came to what they knew about computer science or technology. Some students had dabbled in code, others sole understanding of technology was through their smart phones, some had never heard of computer science, and others found it challenging to learn it in English, a difficulty due to their recent arrival to the United States.

Our intriguing challenge was to create a meaningful experience for each of these different sub-groups of students, given the fact that each classroom has some of each.

I want to share 3 key strategies that have I have learned in creating our CSL Academies:

1.  Have A Flexible Curriculum

There is no one-size-fits-all curriculum. When developing and selecting a curriculum to teach computer science at any school, a strong understanding of the school and classroom is not enough. To maximize the impact of any program, there needs to be a solid understanding of the classroom down to each student. 

As I mentioned above, the wide range of experience in each classroom presents a tough environment. Instructors must be prepared to tailor their curriculum to best match the needs of each and every student. Of course, every instructor can’t be an expert on addressing the needs of every type of student. As I mentioned in my last blog, we have built strong collaborations with partners, who we can consult, that know best practices for engaging given groups of students.

2. Emphasize Peer-to-Peer Learning

Schools in low-income communities often times have a significant disparity in the student to instructor ratio. External programs, such as our CSL Academies, face similar challenges in only being able to bring one instructor to each classroom.

In my experience, setting the stage and developing a culture of peer-to-peer learning early on where students can learn from each other enhances the overall learning experience. Naturally, there will be some students in each classroom that are self-starters and grasp the material more quickly than others. We need to identify those students and provide the platform for them to lead specific sections of the curriculum that other students may be struggling with. This approach will provide support for the instructor and strengthen their communication skills and their understanding of the material.

3. Create a Cycle of Leadership

The questions I hear the most for each of our technology programs include: "When are you all coming back?”, “What can we do if we want to keep learning?”, and "How can we bring the program to more schools?" At the Hispanic Heritage Foundation, we focus on a continued cycle of leadership, knowing that we need to engage with students multiple times well into their young professional careers in order to support their leadership development.

For the students in any of our technology programs, including the CSL LOFT Coding Boot Camps, we maintain a series of touch points to maintain engagement and continued learning.

For example, for aspiring Latino software engineers and technologists we have a specific Hispanic Heritage Youth Award category for Innovation and Technology that Latina/o seniors can apply to. We also challenge minority youth from the ages of 15-25 to develop a video game or mobile app for social good via our ESA LOFT Video Game Innovation Fellowship. My personal favorite is ensuring that each LOFT member returns and leverages our programs to play a meaningful role in the lives of young developing leaders. Our CSL Academies and Boot Camps are led by young LOFT CSL Fellows who grew up or have a similar background to the students they instruct.

I ensure that our programs are in constant iteration as we learn more and more from every school, classroom, and student in our program. Now, after living in an airport and traveling nearly 10,000 miles in one week, I look forward to home-cooked meals and closing out the year strong.