Researchers Begin Developing Computer Science Ecosystem  

Researchers Begin Developing Computer Science Ecosystem  


Sybil MadisonSybil Madison, Chicago’s deputy mayor of education and human services at Truman College.

Chicago has a rich community of informal computer science educators, but the providers often work in isolation and the programs lack cohesion, according to the first study to comprehensively map the city’s computer science landscape.

At least 42 organizations provide out-of-school computer science training for Chicago youth, according to the report, produced by Northwestern University's Office of Community Education Partnerships, which is housed in the School of Education and Social Policy. The researchers, led by Nichole Pinkard, associate professor of learning sciences at Northwestern,  also identified computer science opportunities in most of Chicago’s 77 neighborhoods.

But 10 regions didn’t have a single computer science program. And more than 80 percent of the out-of-school computer science offerings for children in Chicago are introductory, making it difficult for students to advance to higher levels or connect their interest to college and career.

"We need to establish and nurture Chicago’s community of informal computer science educators,” said Pinkard, faculty director of the Office of Community Education Partnerships.  “They provide the data we need to make opportunities visible, and they can help us design and develop programs that the data shows we need. They hold the informal CS learning ecosystem in their hands.”

Pinkard spoke during a citywide open house at Truman College designed to knit together Chicago’s computer science community and brainstorm ways to develop a sustainable infrastructure to support a wide variety of in-school, out-of-school, and summer computer science learning opportunities.

The event, which featured report coauthor Sybil Madison, Chicago’s deputy mayor of education and human services, was cohosted in collaboration with DePaul University, the Chicago Learning Exchange, CS4ALL at Chicago Public Schools, and powered by a grant Pinkard received from the CME Group Foundation.

 “We’re trying to better organize what we’re offering young people and how we’re connecting to them,” Madison said. “We need to change our strategies so we are engaging children who often don't  know about or have these opportunities.”

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s focus on youth starts with ensuring that each individual child has a plan for meaningful engagement this summer, providing a timely catalyst for creating a robust computer science ecosystem, Madison said. 

At least 12 city departments that work with young people are involved in the administration’s youth initiative, including Chicago Public Schools, City Colleges, the Department of Innovation and Technology, and the Police Department.

Lightfoot’s youth commission, a diverse group of more than two dozen young people, also will help work on the vision, which involves building pathways to the workforce, college, career, and lifelong learning.

Now, armed with new information gleaned from Northwestern’s landscape study, the computer science community is “closer than ever before to connecting programs and creating pathways for youth interested in computer science,” Pinkard said.

But the effort goes beyond data collection. Madison stressed the importance of cultivating relationships. “To get every child connected we need warm handoffs,” she said. “We need adults who are helping youth onramp to new opportunities. That’s not going to be done by a platform, data or technology. Instead, one adult connects that youth to another adult or organization to ensure they have made the connection in a way that will be sticky. We need to better connect the adult ecosystem so young people get connected from program to program.”

Pinkard is an expert on creating and supporting learning spaces both on and offline. Her research suggests that education should be reimagined as a networked ecosystem, one that connects formal and informal learning for youth and where information moves freely in and beyond school.

Her project, “Cultivating Chicago’s Informal Computer Science Learning Ecosystem,” builds on work that began in 2017, when the MacArthur Foundation funded the Chicago City of Learning initiative to identify every out-of-school computer science program available to K-12 youth. It is now informing OCEP’s Center for Excellence in Computer Science Education, done in partnership with Chicago Public Schools and part of Apple’s Everyone Can Code initiative.

This work produced Chicago’s first informal CS program map and identified specific gaps in CS program offerings.  It also provided the catalyst to begin building the community of youth-serving organizations that could intentionally address the gaps.

For more information read the report or contact Miranda Standberry Wallace, community engagement manager for Digital Youth Network.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/2/22