Pinkard Appointed Alice Hamilton Professor

Pinkard Appointed Alice Hamilton Professor

nichole pinkard smiling with studentNichole Pinkard (left) was one of the first graduates of SESP's pioneering learning sciences PhD program.

Alumna Nichole Pinkard (PhD98), a leading thinker on the design of educational ecosystems, was appointed the inaugural Alice Hamilton Professor of Education and Social Policy at Northwestern University’s School of Education and Social Policy.

Hamilton was a leading expert in occupational health, and like Pinkard, a pioneer in community engaged scholarship. A professor at the Woman's Medical School of Northwestern, Hamilton eventually became the first woman faculty member at the Harvard Medical School.

Pinkard, who was recently also promoted to full professor, called Hamilton a “trailblazer whose research and advocacy in Chicago inspired the field of occupational health -- and in no-small way paved the way for my community embedded approach to research honed here in SESP.”

“A bevy of opportunities of people and experiences joined together to make wanting to be a computer scientist a possibility for me,” Pinkard said. “Now it’s my responsibility to ensure that next young girl has the access to the resources and the people to create her own journey and her own path.”

In 1998, Pinkard became one of the first graduates of the pioneering School of Education and Social Policy’s learning sciences PhD program. Trained as a computer scientist, she is renowned for helping young people find and access learning opportunities in their schools, libraries, park districts and other places in the community.

This infrastructure, which she calls important “connective tissue” fosters freedom of movement And like air in a car’s tires: it’s essential but rarely noticed.

“It’s not enough to expect children to participate if they can’t see how they fit into the picture,” Pinkard said. “You can’t, for example, hold an afterschool program in an under-resourced neighborhood without plans for providing safe methods of transportation to and from locations.”

Through the Digital Youth Network, which she cofounded with Akili Lee (PhD02), she has created multiple programs to increase access and equity, including the Cities Learn platform (formerly called L3,) which is used by schools and community groups and platform in several states.

Technological changes make it easier than ever to help children learn outside the classroom. Smaller devices and increased access to free WiFi in community spaces have ushered in new ways of accessing, communicating, connecting, and showcasing that don’t assume schools are the only place where learning occurs, Pinkard says.

Instead, these spaces become “the essential critical hub that connects families to formal and informal learning experiences,” she said.

Lessons from a Kansas Childhood

Pinkard grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, riding her bike with friends around the neighborhood and to basketball practice. Early on, her parents drove her to piano lessons and other activities.

But she had little access to public transportation. When her father’s commute increased and her parents divorced, Pinkard relied on a community of mothers and coaches on her sports teams–what she calls 'connective tissue', to help her get to practice and games.

“When connective tissue is there, people see choices expand,” Pinkard said. “They can imagine multiple pathways as their freedom of movement increases, allowing them to participate in programming at different locations where they can develop and strengthen relationships with peers and caring adults.”

In high school, Pinkard spent a summer with Northwestern’s LEAD (LEADership, Education, and Development) program, part of a national nonprofit that helps develop leadership skills.

She was honored with the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s Alumni Merit Award in 2014. She delivered a convocation address to SESP students in 2016. The following year,  she returned to Northwestern as associate professor of learning sciences and faculty director of SESP's Office of Community Education Partnerships (OCEP).

“Nichole is an outstanding example of SESP’s interdisciplinary emphasis and our commitment to doing meaningful and impactful research in the community,” said Interim Dean Dan P. McAdams. “By partnering with everyone from transportation experts at the McCormick School of Engineering to directors of libraries and park districts, she’s addressing complex, real-world problems from multiple perspectives and improving people’s lives.

Here’s a closer look at five ecosystems Pinkard has developed:

Digital Youth Network

Pinkard founded the Digital Youth Network (DYN) in 2006 to figure out what type of infrastructure would be needed to help kids develop technical, creative, and analytical digital literacies. The initiative began with sixth to eighth-grade youth attending the University of Chicago’s charter schools. Over the last 15 years, the DYN model, documented in a self-titled book, has “evolved to focus on developing the connective tissue between opportunities and other elements of the ecosystem," Pinkard said.

The Cities Learn platform

Formerly called L3, this platform gives cities and local partners a unique set of insights to understand and respond to the state of equity in learning outside of school. Using research-driven data analytics tools, city government, funders, and community-based organizations work together to ensure all children can have meaningful learning opportunities in their home communities.


An open-access platform, STEAMville helps kids discover, develop, and showcase their STEAM interests and identities and connect to other STEAM learning opportunities. The STEAMbassador program uses the platform to help college students pursue STEAM interests and share what they’ve learned with young people through mentoring and creative activities, such as coding music, flying drones, building machines, and writing stories in online and face-to-face informal learning spaces.

Digital Youth Divas

An out-of-school program targeting middle school girls, especially those from non-dominant communities, Divas provides an environment where girls can explore technology in relevant ways. The program uses design-based engineering and computer science activities driven by storytelling to help girls develop STEM identities by giving them face-to-face and online spaces to design, create, and re-imagine everyday artifacts (jewelry, hair accessories, music) and activities (dancing and talking to friends). The activities involve collaboration, critique, circuitry, coding, and fabrication.


Pinkard was a co-founder of YOUmedia, a public learning space for teens where they use traditional and new media to create games, videos, and virtual worlds. YOUmedia began as a partnership between the Chicago Public Library and the MacArthur Foundation and has since expanded to a country-wide network of YOUmedia Learning Labs. Teens who are part of  YOUmedia can access thousands of books and a variety of tools to help them build their digital media skills.

Research highlights:

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 10/4/22