The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the Quest for Computing Diversity

(Disclaimer: while the opinions expressed here are rooted in research that I did with others, these views are my own.)

If Seymour Papert and his colleagues had been able to work their will in the 1980s, an entire generation of school children would have learned to program in LOGO as part of their normal school curriculum. Although LOGO was adopted in some schools, its use never became routine . Instead, the introduction of Microsoft Office and other software applications led most school districts who had computing resources to focus on teaching children to be sophisticated technology consumers, as opposed to technology innovators.

In Stuck in the Shallow End: Education, Race and Computing, a 2008 case study of the Los Angeles Unified School District education, UCLA education researcher Jane Margolis documented the fact that even where school districts invested in bringing computers to classrooms, unequal access to computing education persists. According to Margolis, lack of resources, beliefs that only a few talented individuals can learn computer science and pressure to teach what will be on standardized tests result in a situation where computing education for students in poorer schools is likely to  be limited to basic computing literacy and vocational skills. In addition to raising questions about social equity, this trend exacerbates the longstanding problem of finding enough students to fill the pipeline for current and future computing professionals.

The National Science Foundation, industry leaders and educators have undertaken a variety of initiatives to address this problem. One of those initiatives, the Broadening Participation in Computing program, funded a variety of demonstration projects and larger-scale alliances designed to engage students from underrepresented backgrounds in computing.  The student participants in the BPC program ranged from middle school through college, and hailed from communities across the country. In 2007, I became a co-Principal Investigator in a BPC project led by Ursula Wolz, an Associate Professor of Computing at The College of New Jersey.The goal of our project, the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers, is to use community journalism as a hook for exposing middle school students and their teachers with computing. (Award number CNS 0739173)

 

 

 

That was the formal hypothesis, and our data validated it, as our formal and informal presentations, papers and interviews amply document. [A bibliography is supplied at the end of this post that lists that work in detail. This poster, which was presented at the 2010 convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, offers an overview of the project from a journalism education perspective.] Participants reported that they understood the similarities between the editorial process and the the process of developing software. They identified programming and something that could be creative and fun. A number of participants have identified specific computing careers that they plan to enter, and are can convey an understanding of the courses they have to take to attain those careers.

The IJIMS project was implemented in collaboration with the faculty and staff of Gilmore J. Fisher Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey, and  with the support of the Superintendent of the Ewing public schools. The Fisher teachers now own the program and are continuing to develop it as a school-year program. In this essay, I am writing about the project as it was originally designed and as it was implemented from the summer of 2008 through June, 2010.

The project consisted of four components:

  • A one-week summer institute for participating teachers. The teachers ran through the summer institute that we had planned for the students, and helped us debug it. The week’s activities included brief introductions to news reporting, writing and editing;  shooting and editing video; and creating animations in the Scratch programming language.
  • A one week summer day camp for middle school students, who worked in beat reporting teams led by their teachers and supported by undergraduate research assistants/counselors.
  • An online magazine consisting of the results of the team reporting projects and powered by a custom built content management system, CAFE (Collaboration and Facilitation Environment). Our undergrads built our own CMS under the direction of co-PI Monisha Pulimood, in an effort to accommodate the need for a simple interface, flexible group collaboration, multiple security levels, and the ability to upload Scratch programs. CAFE also has a built-in sourcebook and production calendar. The 2008-9 issue of the magazine is called FISH (Fisher’s Interesting Stories Here); the 2009-10 issue is NEWS (New Ewing Web Stories)
  • An after-school program, initially available only to participants in the summer program, and then gradually made available to students throughout the school as interest spread.

In addition to these core features, students participated in “off-beat” activities after lunch designed both to let them blow off steam and to reinforce concepts related to journalism or computer science. These activities included established games such as Set, and original activities designed by our undergrads, sometimes in partnership with our teachers. Prime examples included Scott Kieffer’s Source Hunt, which taught students how to evaluate the credibility of news sources. Kieffer described the game in this essay for Poynter.org, excerpted below:

The ‘source hunts,’ as I came to call them, seemed simple enough. We organized the students into teams of reporters. Each team got a list of five questions. Then they sought out their potential sources, who were scattered throughout the building. The ‘sources’ were really just members of the IJIMS team portraying various characters. Student reporters introduced themselves to each source, ask the source’s name and qualifications, and then ask the questions on their list. But there was a catch: Although every source would answer every question, those answers weren’t always correct.”

In 2009, undergraduate researcher Michael Milazzo (now a professional learning designer) taught a swing dancing class as a way of introducing computing concepts. If that seems strange, consider that dance steps use an 8-count (as do bits and bytes), and dance routines consist of steps (or subroutines) that have set beginnings, transition points and endings (control structures), and so forth.

Lessons from Middle School Outreach Projects

In this 2010 interview with participating teacher Laura Fay describes how  IJIMS’ scholastic journalism model  has affected her language arts teaching. She speaks of  the steps she has taken to bring the spirit of collaboration that characterized the IJIMS newsroom into her classroom.

Raymond Broach, who was the superintendent of the Ewing public schools at the inception of the IJIMS project, explained that the IJIMS model changed the district’s view of professional development for teachers in this 2009 interview. Broach said that IJIMS was an unusual professional development opportunity for the Fisher teachers because it augmented their existing skills in a way that allowed them to introduce something completely new to the students.

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Beyond IJIMS

Beyond these observations and the positive self-reports of project participants, additional lessons emerge when the IJIMS program is considered in the context of other efforts to attract young people to computing.

  1. Teachers outside of the STEM disciplines can learn how to infuse computing in their classes.
  2. You have to get IT on your side. IT policies within schools and school districts can create significant barriers to progress, even when there is adequate equipment with the school. Firewalls and computing access policies created challenges in customizing our content management system for the school. For example, the web browser installed on the school’s computers was an antique version of Internet Explorer that didn’t work well with modern content management systems. These policies vary from one school district to another, though, even within the same county.
  3. Young people who become interested in computing in middle school need academic and co-curricular paths to computing study in college. Jan Cuny, the program officer at the National Science Foundation who originated the BPC program, notes that fewer than half of the high schools in the United States have AP computer science classes. Part of the reason for this is that there aren’t enough teachers qualified to teach computer science at the high school level. Part of the problem is that computing is consistently incorporated into curriculum standards in K-12 schools across the country. Cuny and her colleagues are attacking this problem with a new initiative, called CE21, or Computing Education for the 21st Century. Central to this, Cuny argues, is the goal of producing 10,000 well-trained computer science high school teachers by 2015. As Cuny argues in this 2010 article (.pdf) for the Computer Science Teacher’s Association newsletter:

    [E]ngagement programs for younger students will be ineffective if students have no further opportunities to explore computing in high school, nor the chance to discover the exciting opportunities computing careers offer. Likewise, revitalized college computing programs will not have a significant impact on degree production if there are too few students showing up at their doors.

  4. As a corollary, they also need support for their social development as future computing professionals in high school through college. That means that computer science and math educators need to continue to develop and disseminate teaching strategies and tools that respond to the diverse ways in which children learn. Successful BPC projects engage their participants creatively and kinesthetically. A kid who gets excited about programming because she has designed games in Scratch or  Alice (another popular entry-level language) might easily get turned off by the traditional approaches to teaching CS. Computer science educators, therefore should be advocates for the arts and physical activities in the schools, and there need to be more cross-curricular collaborations around the connections between those disciplines and computing.
  5. Language arts, art and social studies are ideal areas in the secondary school  curriculum for infusing computing by way of journalism education.

Conclusion

The IJIMS experiment, and the BPC program generally, corroborate my personal middle school experience that learning activities emphasizing games and creative expression can engage children in ways of thinking and problem solving that are foundational to success in computing and related professions. Composing electronic music got me interested enough in electronics that I would take apart my transistor radio, memorize the names of the parts and put it back together. A basic programming class in 7th grade further ignited my interest. However, just as Jan Cuny lamented, my high school did not have programming classes. At the same time, the experience of working on my fourth grade camp newsletter was followed by similar experiences in high school and college. My parents, teachers and counselors reinforced my understanding of how these activities could lead to a writing career. But as technology storyteller Kevin Michael Brooks has argued,  it is a mistake to think that a capacity for creative fields such as writing and fields such computer science are mutually exclusive. In fact, they can be mutually reinforcing if taught in a way that allows students to explore those connections for themselves.

Diversifying the computing pipeline is essential to meeting the current and future needs of media industries. Therefore journalism industry leaders and educators should be active participants in the discussion about broadening participation in computing. Leaders and educators in the computing industry, similarly, should go beyond the traditional focus on recruiting students who have demonstrated facility with math and science as primary candidates for computer science. That pool is too small. Rather, they should recognize and cultivate the latent computing talents in the writers, artist and athletes in their midst. In the next post, I will look at the way in which interactive journalism programs can help the news industry achieve its elusive diversity goals – and respond to its innovation crisis at the same time.


References and endnotes

Articles, papers and presentations on the IJIMS project

U Wolz, M. Pulimood, K. Pearson, M. Stone, M. Switzer, “Computational thinking and expository writing in the middle school.”  ACM Transactions in Computing Education, forthcoming.

with U Wolz,  M.Pulimood, M. Stone; M. Switzer. “Computational Journalism in the Middle School.” Scholastic Division, 2010 Convention of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communications, Denver, Colo. Aug. 4-7, 2010

§ Wolz, U., Stone, M., Pulimood, S. M., and Pearson, K. 2010. Computational thinking via interactive journalism in middle school. In Proceedings of the 41st ACM Technical Symposium on Computer Science Education (Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA, March 10 – 13, 2010). SIGCSE ’10. ACM, New York, NY, 239-243.

§ U. Wolz, K. Pearson, M. Pulimood, M. Stone, and M. Switzer) Broadening Participation in Computing via Community Journalism, New Media Consortium Summer Conference, June 11-14, 2008

§  M. Pulimood, D. Shaw, K. Pearson) “Content Management Systems for Journalism,” New Media Consortium Summer Conference,  June 11-14, 2008

§ (with M. Pulimood, M. Stone, M. Switzer and U. Wolz.) “Scratch in the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle School.” Scratch@MIT conference. MIT Media Lab July 25, 2008

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The Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers and the Quest for Computing Diversity by Kim Pearson, unless otherwise expressly stated, is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.