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Bass Connections Team Creates Computer Science Curriculum for North Carolina Elementary Schools

Aria Chernik is an evangelist for open education. As Associate Professor of the Practice for Duke’s Innovation & Entrepreneurship Initiative and Social Science Research Institute, she leads work on eliminating barriers to learning.

Chernik’s zeal inspired two of her students, Carter Zenke ’20 and Tanner Johnson ’18. They noticed that all too many people in their computer science classes looked like them—white and male—and they told Chernik they wanted to do something about it.

With Chernik’s support, they set to work on a computer science curriculum for young people that incorporated principles of open design. This approach aims to help students who are learning about computer science to develop a deep understanding of user needs. They called their venture CSbyUs, which stands for computer science by us, for us. The group formed a Bass Connections project team and partnered with Red Hat, Student U, the Boys & Girls Club of Durham, and several area middle schools to offer after-school courses in coding founded on open design principles.

Aria Chernik, left, at the 2018 CSbyUs launch event at Duke. Image courtesy of the Social Science Research Institute.
Chernik, left, at the 2018 CSbyUs launch event at Duke. Image courtesy of the Social Science Research Institute.

“The students became really passionate about their work,” Chernik said. “They were learning coding, but really they were learning to address a need they saw.”

The next step was to teach this kind of curriculum in class during the school day, as opposed to only after school—but that would present a lot of red tape and challenges.

Then Chernik was approached by Mary Hemphill-Joseph. North Carolina had recently created computer science learning standards and had appointed Hemphill-Joseph Director of Computer Science & Technology Education at the NC Department of Public Instruction, charging her with implementing the standards statewide. Hemphill-Joseph—who created #IAmCS, a campaign to make computer science education and careers accessible to all girls in North Carolina—was enthusiastic about the work Chernik’s team was doing to make computer science more accessible and equitable. Hemphill-Joseph gave her approval for a new Bass Connections team to design and implement a 15-hour computer science curriculum for grades 3-5 aligned with the new standards.

To build toward the goal of getting the curriculum adopted by all North Carolina elementary schools, the team piloted it at Durham’s E.K. Powe Elementary School beginning in January 2020, partnering with four teachers—none of whom had a background in computer science. Teachers chose two out of three units to implement, providing feedback to the team after each lesson.

Durham middle school students provided demos of the apps they developed at the 2018 CSbyUs launch event at Duke. Image courtesy of the Social Science Research Institute.

The teachers had already taught their chosen units, and had all elected to teach the third, when COVID-19 hit.

Progress slowed as issues related to the pandemic took priority. But in Fall 2020, Hemphill-Joseph gave the team the go-ahead to synthesize their lessons, materials, and assessment data—a massive effort resulting in a 203-page summary document—and give a presentation to the State Board of Education.

The presentation team included Chernik, Carter (now an education graduate student at Harvard working on an assessment tool to measure the curriculum’s efficacy), Jay Patel ’21, E.K. Powe teacher Chelsea Williams, and a fourth grader from a class that had piloted the curriculum. “This was an amazing first step to show them the standards in action,” Hemphill-Joseph said.

As the team awaits updates on the curriculum’s adoption, the Department of Public Instruction has approved a proposal by Chernik for an Open Design Academy that will help teachers and principals use open design to create equity-focused computer science curricula. Moving forward, Chernik hopes the Open Design Studio can be a home for projects like CSbyUs that want to grow larger than a class.

“It’s the greatest joy in the world to have students wanting to do this work because they really believe in it,” Chernik said.

Voices From the Project

Mary Hemphill-Joseph, Director of K-12 Computer Science and Technology Education at the NC Department of Public Instruction:

“When it comes to our low socioeconomic schools and historically marginalized populations, one of the things we don’t often see is how to authentically engage those populations in the learning process. [At E.K. Powe Elementary] we were able to hone in on making sure we had kinesthetic learning, virtual learning, tactile learning. We matched that with students being able to get up and do. We moved from lectures to engagement. We used the students’ inquiry, questions, and presentations to drive the learning. The feedback that we got from teacher leaders was that there was such high engagement, students were excited to come to class.

“I had a professor when I was getting my doctorate in education who said, ‘Mary, as you move through education, I want you to remember, if you’re not at the table, you’re on the menu.’

CSbyUs literally invited the students, the parents, the community, the teachers, the principals, and everyone else to the table. I feel so excited about it because we’re creating something where everyone has a chair at the table. I feel like we didn’t leave any stakeholder out who’s going to be touched by this work.”

Jay Patel ’21, Computer Science and Mathematics:

“I’m from a small town in rural East Texas and was not afforded many opportunities while in high school. For example, I didn’t know what computer science was until the summer before I started at Duke. Education inequality across the country became apparent to me after hearing about the more affluent high schools that many of my peers at Duke had attended. I saw a Facebook post for CSbyUs during my sophomore year and felt like it would be a great way to begin acting on what was at the time a burgeoning passion.

“Last year I had a call with the CEO of an edtech startup, and we discussed our thoughts on public education. I was disheartened to find that he had given up on state governments not only to rectify education inequality but also to provide higher quality learning materials, specifically in STEM. His goal with his startup was to provide a way for students to learn more outside of the classroom. However, to me this meant his product was really targeted towards students with the time and resources to learn CS at home, which in a way served to exacerbate education inequality. While companies like his and Khan Academy and many others are great, they aren’t the solution to public education in America.

“I think it’s very important for those in the education/edtech community not to give up on public education. I hope that our work with the NC Board of Education will provide a blueprint for how other educational organizations can work with their state governments.”

Chelsea Williams, Teacher at E.K. Powe Elementary:

“I love this program and I’m hoping the Board approves it to be used in more schools across North Carolina. One of the things Dr. Hemphill-Joseph was so adamant about, especially when you’re getting into rural communities in North Carolina, [is that this curriculum presents] a way for us to expose kids to critical thinking skills, whether it’s on a computer or not on a computer. That was the part that really sold me, because one of my biggest issues with education is the regurgitation of information from kids back to the teacher. With CSbyUs, it was nice because the kids were actually thinking and working and developing a love of learning.

“The student who spoke with me [at the board presentation] thought computer science was what the boys do. But when she realized what it was, she got really, really interested in it. And a lot of my girls were like, ‘Whoa, this is just puzzles and logical thinking!’ So it pulled in kids who when they hear computer science and coding instantly say, ‘Not for me.’”

During the program, Williams had her brother, who works in computer science, Skype in to speak with her students. “That was a really crucial part of it, because students could see what they learned in the real world and what it could look like if when they grew up they chose to do this.”

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