Boys & Girls Clubs of America is bringing computer science education to diverse learners nationwide
“We’re using computer science to change the way kids think—from merely using technology to being creators. We take computer science education very seriously because it gives young people an advantage for a better future, no matter what path or career they choose.” - Edwin Link, National Vice President for Educational Foundations and Academic Innovation
Using computer science to bridge the opportunity gap
Boys & Girls Clubs of America (BGCA) has existed for more than a century to help young people reach their highest potential. While BGCA provides after-school enrichment for all children, nearly 60% of its members qualify for free-or-reduced-cost lunch, a standard measure of poverty in the US. Recently, the nationwide network of clubs expanded its programming to include computer science (CS) education.
BGCA offers CS education to youth who likely don’t have opportunities to try it in school. They recognize that without access to CS education at their clubs, the 4 million youth the organization serves across the US may not get a fair shot at learning this vital subject. CS teaches skills young people need to succeed in a modern, competitive, and digital-first world. By teaching the critical thinking, problem-solving and curiosity inherent in CS, the clubs help shape a generation of youth who will be more successful, whatever they pursue.
“Providing opportunities to learn computer science and engage with technology is critical to their success. It's what's going to get them connected to that first job. It’s what's going to get them connected to an education pathway that will lead to a high wage career,” explains Rebecca Asmo, CEO of Boys & Girls Clubs in Columbus, Ohio.
Criteria for developing a computer science education program
As part of the organization’s Great Futures 2025 strategy, which in part focuses on providing high-quality programs and world-class experiences for club members, BGCA leadership wanted to standardize resources they offered so all clubs could provide CS education. After all, computer science is a crucial resource for young people working to fulfill their highest potential—and one many members would not have access to, were it not for BGCA.
“A young person can walk into a club and want to be doctor, lawyer, computer programmer, artist—anything,” says Abi Fidler, director of digital youth engagement. “Whatever passion they have, the potential for them to succeed should be the same no matter what club they attend.”
To achieve a consistent experience nationwide, BGCA’s challenge was to determine precisely how to develop and deliver programming useful for a deeply diverse network of clubs and young people. They needed a program that would be:
- Flexible. BGCA’s ground-up ethos means that staff in the Atlanta headquarters don’t dictate to individual clubs; rather, they provide a suite of resources along with education why they work. Each of the 4,300 local clubs nationwide, which are run and managed by local boards of directors, decide when and how to provide that programming.
- Current. CS programming needed to be nimble enough to change with new educational and industry insights, approaches, and resources.
- Adaptable. Some clubs already have advanced technology programs; others don’t even have reliable internet. A computer science curriculum, then, would need to be useful for clubs and young people at a wide range of baselines and easily adaptable based on club feedback.
- Attainable. Staff and volunteers who had no previous experience with CS need to be able to run the programming.
After evaluating existing models and third-party curricula, BGCA decided to develop the Computer Science Pathway, using a varied set of curricula, lesson plans, and resources that all 4,300 BGCA clubs could access and use.
Did you know?
Graduating club members are 2x more likely than their peers to want a career in STEM.
“Access to technology and computer science is transformative for young people here at the clubs. Whether it’s opening a young person’s eyes to a possible career, helping them access a college scholarship or connecting them with a summer job, computer science is critical to their success.” - Rebecca Asmo, CEO of Boys and Girls Clubs of Columbus, in Ohio
What is the Computer Science Pathway?
The very essence of the CS Pathway is modular: Clubs can implement pieces, or all, of the Pathway as best suits their organization and members. The Pathway is designed to ladder up, so skills used in one portion of the Pathway can be applied to later resources, but are flexible enough to be used individually, too. “The concept of offering a pathway was to make computer science education more approachable and flexible,” Fidler says. “Every club can do something—and has a path to do more.”
The CS Pathway model includes:
- A readiness survey. Before clubs begin, they need to determine their capacity for offering CS education. The education team at BGCA developed a survey (link in the Resources sidebar) that gauges what resources clubs already have or need (such as reliable wifi and hardware) and suggests next steps to develop capacity further. “We’re breaking down barriers and making sure the pieces are in place so that anybody can pick up CS and start,” Fidler says.
- An online delivery platform. The BGCA My.Future.net platform is an online extension of brick and mortar clubs, providing not only a place for members to create and share CS-related projects but also to learn the 21st century skills that will empower them to thrive. Members can log in, continue engaging in CS activities (and other subjects), and stay connected with their club and staff. Members can also track their CS learning activities through the platform and earn certificates and badges, an added incentive to keep going.
- Capacity building and training. Training club staff was key to getting buy-in as well as building capacity on the local level. BGCA created a countrywide network of training experts called National Training Associates (NTAs), who deliver CS education training on-site to clubs. Instead of employing a team of NTAs at national headquarters in Atlanta, NTAs are CS champions who work in clubs across the country. The NTAs use a standardized training curriculum housed in BGCA’s staff and volunteer internal learning portal.
The in-person trainings have been remarkably effective in converting skeptical clubs to CS enthusiasts, in part because staff have a chance to ask questions and get hands-on experience. (In-person training is also preferable to clubs with no or slow internet or limited, outdated computers.) Rather than watching a video or reading instructions, staff try out parts of the CS Pathway to break down myths and defeatist “I can’t do this” attitudes around computer science. “That’s a huge moment for them: It shows even apprehensive staff that they can do it—because they have done it!” Fidler says.
The in-person training shows clubs that the Computer Science Pathway can fit in any site, regardless of its technology infrastructure. In fact, NTAs once ran a training at a club where the internet was down for the day. The hiccup was a real-life example of how clubs can inspire young people to try computer science in any club, anywhere, Fidler says. “It’s a big win for them to feel as though they can run the program in their space, no matter what.”
Steps to implement a Computer Science Pathway
Step 1: Determine whether to create or curate curriculum
When evaluating just how to deliver CS education, BGCA had to decide one critical point: whether to develop a CS curriculum or curate existing resources.
At first, the team leaned toward building their own resources for clubs to use, in part because one program they created to teach Scratch was so successful with young people. However, when considering the depth and breadth of materials needed for a CS Pathway—one that would allow clubs and members jump in at any starting point—the program team reconsidered. Bottom line: “We don’t have the resources to keep the materials up to date as education approaches and content change,” Link says.
Ultimately, BGCA decided on a hybrid approach. “If there’s something great out there, there’s no reason to reinvent the wheel,” Fidler says, “and if not, we focus on filling in those gaps.” After evaluating the wealth of existing CS resources, they determined that they could still add value with one custom program, App Inventor, which they developed with a team from MIT. The rest, though, they would curate from the best existing resources so clubs wouldn’t have to wade through all the options themselves.
Step 2: Pilot
The Computer Science Pathway started as a pilot, which allowed BGCA to test their new approach to CS education before rolling out nationwide. Headquarters initially recruited 25 pilot clubs, including a mix of clubs that were eager to dive in and those that were more circumspect. The first pilot tested only a portion of the entire Pathway, allowing additional time to refine the other resources as well as providing a more limited scope to evaluate.
Next, BGCA ran a second pilot, which included an additional 30 clubs. The second pilot expanded on the original offering of CS programming.
Headquarters is now working with a third-party evaluation team to glean insights from in-depth interviews and feedback from clubs. They will incorporate those takeaways into a national rollout later in 2017.
Step 3: Bring clubs on board
Although local clubs recognized the urgency and need for CS education, headquarters had to address the realities and hesitancies of staff on the ground. Local clubs were concerned about:
Member online safety. Many clubs don’t have enough computers to serve all young members, so headquarters recommended allowing youth to use their own devices. To address questions of safety, BGCA trained clubs in device and internet access policies.
Staff and volunteers. Many club staff and volunteers have had little or no exposure to CS themselves and so are understandably nervous about introducing young people to it. “‘What if they ask me a question I don’t know the answer to, and what if they know more than I do?’ are common questions,” says Fidler. So the CS Pathway is built upon a foundation of activities that anyone can do (and that are accompanied by clear instructions facilitators can execute with minimal prep).
Time management. Members are at clubs for only a few hours a day; after snacks, free time and homework help, there is not much time remaining for structured activities. The programming, then, is broken into bite-sized pieces that can be completed by students in as few as 30 minutes.
Step 4: Listen and learn
True to BGCA’s ethos as a bottom-up organization, it incorporates feedback to continually fine-tune the Computer Science Pathway offerings.
Boys & Girls Clubs of America has partnered with the evaluation nonprofit EDC to gauge the Computer Science Pathway’s success and identify where it can improve. By surveying members in pilot programs before and after participating in CS activities, BGCA learns about how programming changes young people’s interest in computer science, improves CS-related skills and competencies, and increases awareness of careers and real-life applications of computer science.
In addition, BGCA’s national office asks for feedback twice a year from staff at the grant sites involved in this evaluation. Responses from surveys often improve programming. For example, clubs have identified the activities that work best in large groups and have suggested where activities in the curriculum should be reordered for a better member experience.
The evaluation ensures that the CS Pathway provides real value to club members. So far, the numbers show that the programming is making a difference. Case in point: After trying computer science through their first Pathway activity, 85% of club members want to continue learning to code.
Computer Science Pathway by the numbers:
- 3,898 students reached in the pilots
- 55 clubs are participating in the pilots
- It took 8 months to ready the Computer Science Pathway before pilot
- 85% members wanted to code more after their first Pathway experience
How BGCA curated a computer science curriculum
To sift through the deep—and ever-expanding—pool of computer science education resources, the BGCA program team developed a rubric to evaluate existing tools. Using a SharePoint form, they researched CS education tools’ target ages, cost, required materials, target student-to-facilitator ratio, and competencies taught. By weighing these factors, the team narrowed down options to those that would serve members at a wide range of skill levels and that would be scalable organization-wide.
The nonprofit also relied heavily on partner expertise. For example, BGCA worked closely with advisers from Microsoft on evaluating what skills and competencies they needed to address in a cutting edge CS program. “Getting an outside perspective and taking advantage of the connectivity between corporate and philanthropic partners helped crystalize what became our Computer Science Pathway,” Link explains.
Now the Computer Science Pathway curriculum contains a manageable number of four core components:
- Hour of Code. These short, self-paced activities show that anyone can learn to code—and that programming is fun. Hour of Code lessons are appealing because they use a wide variety of kid-friendly characters, from Minecraft to Moana, in video game-like activities.
- CS Unplugged. Not all clubs have wifi or up-to-date computers; their members can still learn the fundamental concepts that underlie computer science. CS Unplugged uses activities with paper, string and movement to teach the basics of binary, algorithms, data compression and more.
- App Lab. Young people can design their apps using the App Inventor tool, which was developed with MIT, using different coding languages, depending on their skillset.
- EdX. The Harvard- and MIT-developed open education platform connects learners to online, self-paced courses in computer science and gives older learners the opportunity to dive deeper into advanced content.
The BGCA staff developing the CS Pathway knew evaluation and adaptation would be critical in providing CS education to such diverse clubs and members. Since beginning to develop the pathway in 2015, BGCA has learned many lessons—and used them to fine-tune the Pathway.
- Include all CS. Initial feedback from clubs and youth suggested that the term “coding” was both intimidating and limiting. “There’s more to computer science than coding,” from learning computational thinking (i.e. breaking down a problem into smaller components and tackling each sequentially) to presenting finished products, Fidler says, so they adjusted messaging to welcome those who might feel that they didn’t want to be a coder.
- Connect clubs. Local clubs that are about to implement CS education may feel apprehensive; talking to clubs who have already had success eases their jitters. “Clubs are starting to talk amongst each other about starting CS programming,” Fidler says. “It means so much more for a director or staff to hear about what went well and what tips to use from another staff who has done it—than hearing from the national office.”
- Provide offline opportunities. Not all clubs have reliable wifi or enough devices for all members. “You don’t have to have technology to learn the logic and fundamentals of computer science,” Link says. CS Unplugged, a paper, and offline activity-based program, allows any club to introduce principles such as binary.
- Limit prep time. In the initial pilot, headquarters heard that some of the Pathway activities required too much prep—a burden to part-time staff—so they adjusted instructions accordingly.
- Fill in gaps. When looking at members’ evaluation of CS activities, headquarters staff focused on how many youth wanted to learn more as a measurement of success. Of particular interest: how prepared members felt for a given activity. When members consistently felt unprepared, staff added in programming that would build up the necessary competencies.
- Break down myths. BGCA strives to disrupt myths and barriers to all young people trying computer science. Clubs also embrace sharing devices during activities, thereby encouraging teamwork and breaking the myth that computer science is an isolating field.
BGCA has taken the approach that everyone can learn and benefit from CS, and everyone can jump in—no matter what their background or what their goals. The same goes for clubs: Any local organization can offer CS education, regardless of staff and volunteer experience or even the presence of actual computers.
And with the CS Pathway pilot coming to a close, BGCA is gearing up to offer BGCA clubs nationwide access to the programming. With BGCA’s goal to help all young people reach their potential, the reach of the CS Pathway—to 4,300 clubs and more than 4 million young people across the country—holds the potential to better prepare an entire generation for their future.