They walked in excited, but not fully knowing what to expect.  We had promised an exciting, fun and relevant way to learn about the field of computing.  However, in the back of their minds they were envisioning lines and lines of computer code.  When was the bait and switch coming?

“I had planned to stay home and play Xbox, but this was way better.” Marques S. 8th Grade

“This was really cool. I have some new ideas on a character I want to design.” Connor J. 10th Grade

“I was really nervous, but Wow I can do this!” Kailani C. 5th Grade

innovators4purpose was founded for these types of moments.  Over a year ago, we reached out to Professor Fox Harrell, Director of MIT’s Imagination Computation & Expression (ICE) Lab. We shared with him our vision of discovering and developing the next generation innovators – especially those residing in underserved communities.  Instantly, he was on board. His educational roots ran deep – his Father was a life-long educator and his wife is a Learning Scientist (PhD in Cognition and Development).  It was just a matter of finding a project to collaborate on.

In October he was awarded a National Science Foundation grant for studying virtual identities (avatars) and to help middle and high school students become excited about computer science.  Four months later, we had 12 wide-eyed students walking onto MIT’s campus for a pilot workshop that will be soon be rolled out to partner schools in the Boston and Cambridge area.  Most of the students were recruited from St. Paul AME Church – the oldest predominately African-American Church in Cambridge, MA.  St. Paul is located in Cambridge’s most economically challenged neighborhood known as Area 4.  The community was featured in a Boston Globe article “Area 4 Residents of Cambridge Live in the Shadows of the Future.” There are many issues embedded in this problem, however we have chosen to focus our energies on increasing the STEM literacy of youth residing in communities like Area 4. It is our hope that our interventions will help develop the passion, purpose and drive needed to participate in the STEM economy.

Professor Fox’s approach to teaching computer science is quite unique. He starts with student identified relevant themes, questions, challenges, and goals to see who students are and what assets they are able to draw on.  The first task was to design their own avatars for a computer learning game. Students quickly noticed the deficiencies in avatar generation tools.  One girl commented that the skin-tone options weren’t dark enough for her choosing.  Another girl commented about the hair style selections.  The lesson was that those options had been programmed by a computer scientist who had different experiences than the user. If you want games that better reflect your culture – you should become producers versus simply consuming.

Next, the students imported their avatars and began exploring Mazzy a game-like programming environment built on a custom-made digital platform called MazeStar.  Using symbols, they begin guiding their avatar thru a maze.  The symbols represent code without being concerned with misspellings or syntax errors.  Instantly everyone was “writing code” guiding their avatars thru the maze by simply using symbols.

ICE Lab Way

Over lunch, we found that student career interests included Computer Science, Architecture, Education, Design and many other areas.  However, very few viewed Computer Science from an interdisciplinary perspective. Computer Science was what programmers did.  After lunch their eyes were opened as to how Social Scientist, Historians and many other in the Humanities were using computer science on a daily basis.

The bulk of the afternoon was spent exploring the intersection of Design and Computer Science.  Students built their own gaming environments that ranged from Monsters in New York to revisiting the Denver Broncos / New England Patriots AFC Championship game.  Then students played each others games and offered constructive criticism.  A few more activities would take us to 4pm.  Six hours had flown by.  A few commented at how fast time past.   Others were puzzled that they hadn’t yet written any code.

“This was much different than I expected.  I was expecting to be writing code.  I’m amazed at the different skills that are required in Computer Science” – Vincent M. 10th Grade

innovators4purpose has a fundamental belief that skill follows will.  In our work, we focus on building passion, purpose and drive.  Once those are in place, students will seek out the skills.  This workshop is a perfect illustration.  As students continue building their gaming environments, they will begin seeking out the skills to work around the limitations of a symbol based environment. In other words, they will learn “traditional coding” skills when it’s necessary.  Most importantly they will learn it – when they have a reason to learn it.

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Michael K. Dawson

Co-Founder, Chief Doer, Innovators For Purpose, Inc. Creative Doing - the act of changing or influencing with the intent of leaving a mark on the world...