By Eloy Ortiz, MURP | February 27, 2015
Research Associate, ETR
Much of the funding that ETR’s Youth & IT Team has received over the past 10 years has focused on creating diversity in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education and the STEM workforce. These grants have often focused on middle school. This is a critical time in a student’s education where we see that underrepresented students, such as girls and Latino/a youth, often lose interest in math and computer science classes.
Our team has researched different methods to expose underrepresented students to computing subjects and interest them in technology careers. We’ve created a number of after-school programs for middle schools using a range of strategies.
We’ve just started testing out a new strategy in high school settings which we call “Stealth Recruitment.” It’s quite different from anything we’ve done before.
Previously, we’ve offered a girls-only video game-making group, a video game-making program for students who work in pairs, and what we call near-peer educational computer science programs—high school “near-peers” teach elementary school students computer science concepts.
The data suggest that these are promising approaches for engaging youth in computer science, particularly students who are underrepresented in these fields. Our studies show that computer game programming engages youth in computational thinking and problem solving, which in turn prepares them for computing courses and careers.
We have also found increases in students’ expectations for success in computing, their technological curiosity, the extent to which they can use computing for the social good, and programming knowledge. The research also shows that participation leads to increases in perceived supports from peers and adults to pursue computing.
In all of these programs, we create content, we contract with teachers to implement the program in a classroom and we recruit students to participate in the program. Inevitably, some students drop out. They may find other interests, have scheduling conflicts that keep them from after-school programs, or just feel the program isn’t a good match for them at that time.
Because of the lack of computer science education in the middle and high schools, once students leave these programs, they may not be exposed to any other computer science-related programs. Research tells us that without that exposure, many talented youth will not consider STEM studies—young people who might actually embrace and flourish in computer science careers.
So, in our next phase of work, we wanted to reach students who might never think of taking a computer programming class, either because they doubt their ability or do not see themselves as the “kind of person” who does tech.
Enter Stealth Recruitment, a strategy that the Youth and IT team is exploring as a way to diversify the number of students exposed to computer science coursework at the high school level. It’s shown some success with college students, but ours is the first study examining its effect in a high school setting.
Taking advantage of the captive audience in existing high school courses, we infuse select courses with more complex computer science class work. We target high school Digital Media courses such as digital photography, web design and graphic design.
Underrepresented students are already enrolled in these courses. These are students who, simply by enrolling in a design class, are showing a baseline interest in computers. They come into the courses prepared to learn sophisticated software such as Photoshop, Illustrator or Flash.
Through our project, we will work within these classes to help students discover the actual programming hidden behind the software they are using. For instance, a student could write code in the Python programming language where she could combine two photographs, remove red eye from a portrait or add copyright information to an existing picture—all without the use of any commercial photo manipulation software.
This is heady stuff for a young person with an affinity for programming, especially if he or she has never before had someone demonstrate in a supportive learning environment the basic principles and results of coding.
Instead of recruiting students to a special program that builds experience with computer science, we are infusing an existing class with computer science course work. We’re still hoping to recruit some of these students to technology-based careers, but we don’t ask them to make any special commitment beyond completing a course they’ve already freely chosen. Hopefully, experience with and excitement about basic coding will spark a deeper interest in computer science.
Stealth Recruitment is a different project for the Youth & IT Team. We believe it’s an important one because it could open doors for students. We hope they’ll go into their class wanting to learn how to work with content in Photoshop and Illustrator, and come out wanting to actually create the next Photoshop and Illustrator.
We’ll keep you posted on how it goes.
Eloy Ortiz, MURP, is a Research Associate at ETR. He has been the research coordinator for multiple projects focused on increasing the computer-science educational attainment of Latino/a youth in Santa Cruz County. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.