There's no question that the world needs more computer scientists. But how do universities reach students early enough to spark interest in the field? How do they encourage a broad swath of students who may be underrepresented in computer science or whose lack of resources put pursuit of the subject out of their reach? And, more urgently, how do they do this amid a global pandemic?
A three-year, $3 million grant from the Hopper-Dean Foundation will allow Carnegie Mellon University to tackle those big problems through the creation of the Carnegie Mellon Computer Science Pathways program. Dedicated to diversity, inclusion and equity, the office will support students who are underrepresented, underresourced or both.
"This work has been happening here for years, but now we're institutionally committing to it thanks to the generosity of Hopper-Dean," said Ashley Williams Patton, director of the new office, which focuses on giving high school students access to computer science.
Patton said that in the era of COVID-19, that means transitioning away from some traditional programming and creating an emergency response plan.
"We're working on the digital divide and infrastructure issues to provide more equitable access to technology," Patton said. For instance, CS Pathways recently helped provided WiFi to students learning remotely in Coraopolis, Pennsylvania, through a partnership with Meta Mesh Wireless Communities.
Patton's team is also tackling access to devices and is working with Homewood Children's Center to rethink what it means to engage with computer science and STEM education during a global pandemic.
"We took our national plan and shrunk it to Pittsburgh, which has allowed us to be more intentional about what it means to holistically support a learner in a community-centered, culturally competent way," Patton said.
"This focus gives us a chance to really serve the immediate needs in our own backyard, at a time with the highest need," said Jonathan Reynolds, senior outreach program manager for CS Pathways. "The pandemic has cast a bright light on the vast amount of inequities that exist in society as a whole, but in our little corner of the world, we're perceiving the huge gap in educational access, especially in terms of technology."
Reynolds said his team has been contacted by organizations nationwide who would like to replicate their efforts. "I'm so excited to see that these initiatives are being deployed in other areas, which scales up the scope of our local work," he said.
Reynolds also hopes to bolster the notion that this type of work isn't about having all the answers.
"Our main job is to leverage the community's expertise and what they know about their own challenges," he said. "They often have the solutions to those challenges, just not the resources to make them happen. Rather than coming into a community and forcing something onto them, you can co-design with them to create solutions that the community ultimately owns and maintains. I think that approach has been critical in establishing relationships locally, including some that needed repair."
Building those relationships has also helped SCS move the needle when it comes to developing trust in the community. "It allowed us to create more awareness among students in the area. They know what we're good at and now they can envision themselves in this space," Reynolds added.
At the end of the day, CS Pathways is motivated by the idea that every child should be empowered to make decisions about their own future, including in STEM. "And during a crisis, it's even more important to help ensure they all have opportunities, and aren't defined solely by zip code or family need," Patton said.