ECS Day: Center X’s Computing Initiative Welcomes LAUSD High Schools, Spelman’s Female Robotics Team

The Exploring Computer Science program brings computer science, academic confidence to female students, students of color.

When Y’shua Ortiz was a senior at Hollywood High School, he enrolled in an Exploring Computer Science (ECS) course, a course created and supported by UCLA researchers and coaches, and taught by a teacher in his school.  He says that he had no prior interest, knowledge, or skills in the area of computers. Upon completing the ECS course and graduating from high school , he became an intern at Edlio, a company that builds custom Websites for schools and school districts. Today, only two years after graduation, Ortiz is part of Edlio’s tech team in Los Angeles. He currently attends Los Angeles City College and plans to transfer to a four-year university to pursue a degree in computer science.

“All of this was thanks to the Exploring Computer Science course I took in high school,” said Ortiz to an audience of ECS students from Los Angeles high schools, that participated in the 4th annual ECS Day at UCLA on Jan. 31 (See Ortiz’s talk here). “Where I am today and where I plan on going is all thanks to this program. I had no knowledge [of computers] or experience, and now I’m working for the number-one school website company in the nation.”

More than 400 students, teachers, and administrators from the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) attended ECS Day. Presenters included the Spelman College SpelBots, the first African American womens’ robotics team, Gerardo Loera, executive director of curriculum and instruction for LAUSD, Nela Suka, Rachel Blum, Lei Zhang, and Mitch Goldstrom of Google, and Ortiz. In addition, the work of ECS students was showcased and recognized with prizes donated by Edlio, Google, and Lego.

ECS is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and administered through a partnership between Center X, the UCLA Graduate School of Education’ssignature research institute dedicated to issues of urban schooling, and LAUSD. The mission of ECS, as part of a NSF Into the Loop grant, is directed by Dr. Jane Margolis. The program’s goal is to increase and enhance computer science learning opportunities for high school students, particularly African American, Latina/o, and female students, all of whom continue to be underrepresented in the field of computing.

Exploring Computer Science team members welcome Google representatives. L-R: John Landa, computer science coach, ECS; Jane Margolis, senior researcher, ECS; Mitch Goldstrom, system reliability manager, Google; Nela Suka, ads quality analyst, Google; Rachel Blum, Google Chrome; Lei Zhang, software engineer, Google; and Jean Ryoo, graduate student researcher, ECS

More than 2,000 LAUSD students are enrolled in the ECS program; nearly half are female. The program is also being conducted in schools in Chicago, San Jose, Oakland, and Portland, Ore., with a pilot program being launched in Washington D.C. ECS’s goals include enacting change upon multiple levels, including strengthening the technical aspects of curriculum, professional development of teachers, and counselor education; changing belief systems that subscribe to stereotypes of what types of students can learn computer science and teachers’ low expectations; and recognizing the need for policy changes to institutionalize computer science learning at the high school level, especially in schools with high numbers of students of color.

Jean Ryoo is a graduate student researcher and a member of the ECS team that oversees the program at 30 schools in the Los Angeles Unified School District. Among her responsibilities are conducting qualitative research through classroom observations and interviews with teachers, assisting with professional development for teachers, contributing to curricula, and representing ECS at national conferences. She says that the program’s efforts – and its results – have proven that young women and students of color are more interested in computer science than commonly believed, and that they can excel in the field when given the opportunity and tools to do so. She shares anecdotal evidence of female students who have acquired not only knowledge about computer science through ECS, but academic and personal self-confidence, the ability to integrate their knowledge into work for other classes, and the desire to share their expertise with family and friends.
“Evaluations of our program show significant and positive impacts on students’ interest and engagement with computer science,” she said. “I have seen many young women transform into skilled and confident computer scientists through their experiences with both the ECS curriculum and with their teachers’ positive support. In one classroom, four young women who began the school year thinking that computer science was boring actually ended the school year stating that they wanted to continue taking computer classes in college.

“Many students have described efforts to carry ECS learning into their other courses and life outside of school,” said Ryoo. “For example, a student showed me an animation piece that she created, using skills learned in ECS, to present a research project for her History class. Similarly, many students have told me that they shared their ECS projects, such as animations, games, and websites, with younger siblings, cousins, and parents, demonstrating pride and self-confidence in their learning through this course.”

Through designing games, websites, and working with robotics, ECS students are introduced to doing the computational thinking that is at the heart of computer science. Through problem solving, the development of logical and creative thinking skills, and the opportunity to create technology, not just use it, they experience how relevant computer science is to important issues in their lives.

Jonathan Portillo (at left) and Christopher Ayuso, 11th graders from James A. Foshay Learning Center High School in Los Angeles, created a video game that teaches about childhood obesity; their work was recognized at ECS Day.

Christopher Ayuso and Jonathan Portillo are 11th graders from James A. Foshay Learning Center High School in Los Angeles, which is participating in ECS for the first time. They created one of the video games that were featured at ECS Day. Using the Nintendo character “Kirby,” they devised a game to teach young players the importance of healthy eating and fighting childhood obesity.

“Everyone around us is affected by obesity,” said Portillo. “We have to start [teaching] little kids, [so] we made it as fun as possible.”

“The project had to have a message behind it,” said Ayuso. “[Kids will] know not to eat the fries… they’re supposed to eat healthy food.”

Portillo said that he enjoys exploring different aspects of computer technology, and gaining as much experience as he can. He also said that the collaborative nature of ECS has taught him that, “More than one of us can create something powerful so that everyone can enjoy it.”

Leslie Aaronson is a teacher at Foshay High School who coordinates the Technology Academy that offers ECS and serves as lead teacher. She said that although she had previously taught a similar curriculum for eight years, ECS has made computer science learning at her school more organized, engaging, and focused.

“ECS has supplied a framework that is engaging and equitable to all students,” said Aaronson. “It takes students from the levels of their own [computer] experience and elevates [them] to a new level. We are all looking at the field of computer science with open eyes and more enthusiasm and interest.”

David Bernier is the Director for the Computer Science Project at UCLA’s Center X, and facilitates and supports several NSF grants related to broadening the participation of young women and underrepresented populations in computer science including Into the Loop and Mobilize. He says that ECS has transformed the face of computer science in Los Angeles high schools by “demystifying computer science for many students who previously had no exposure to the discipline, while also setting them on a course of further study and exploration that would not have been a possibility prior to the ECS experience.

“Many teachers have testified that ECS has changed their pedagogical approach to focus more on issues of inquiry and equity and the fostering of student collaboration and creativity while also deepening students’ understanding of the fundamental concepts of computing,” says Bernier. “As students build upon their experiences with ECS through additional courses or by applying the principles [they learn] to whatever fields they end up pursuing, they will bring a richness of innovative and helpful ideas to our workforce and beyond.”

Above: LAUSD students enrolled in ECS courses heard speakers from Google, LAUSD, and Spelman College’s all-female robotics team, the Spelbots, at ECS Day in Ackerman Student Union.