Candela Rojas says she didn’t know anything about computer coding before last January. In fact, the freshman at Gwinnett County’s Lanier High School couldn’t even explain it.
“A bunch of numbers and computer commands,” was her best guess. Eight weeks later, she had recognized the power of computing and could “make the computer do what I want.” What made the difference is a coding program developed at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
EarSketch is one of several Georgia Tech initiatives that researchers and staff members are making available to K-12 students around the state and the country. From the Nerdy Derby to online lessons and underwater tours, every program – including GTRI’s Direct-to-Discovery initiative – uses creative and different tactics. But the goal of each is the same: to get more students interested in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields. Many are designed to provide STEM outreach with a focus on minorities and underserved students.
Serving the State
The Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI) – Georgia Tech’s applied research organization – has made STEM a top priority. As part of its core mission, GTRI is helping educate the leaders of a technologically driven world.
“Our team will continue to bring excitement, vitality and good science to classrooms across the state,” said GTRI Director and Georgia Tech Senior Vice President Robert McGrath. “At the same time, we will concentrate our resources, attempting to have direct and significant impact on the future careers and livelihoods of targeted groups of students. My hope and experience suggests that such notable impact can and will be contagious.”
Though it doesn’t have an education college, Georgia Tech is one of the state’s leaders as Georgia attempts to increase the number of STEM students, expand its future workforce and drive the economy. For 25 years, the Institute’s Center for Education Integrating Science, Mathematics and Computing (CEISMC) has connected Georgia Tech with educational groups, schools, corporations and opinion leaders around the state and nation. The 48-member staff has two key initiatives for students: STEM awareness and preparation.
“Many K-12 children have never seen a scientist. Some have never seen a lab,” said CEISMC Director Richard Millman. “For children to decide if they want to pursue STEM fields, they must first be introduced to the field in a way that intrigues them. Thanks to many of the faculty of Georgia Tech, the excitement of research can be brought to the K-12 schools.”
CEISMC also focuses on STEM teacher professional development using content enrichment initiatives, including initiatives funded by the federal government’s Race to the Top program.
Discovering the World
Principal research engineer Jud Ready is growing nanotubes in his lab at GTRI’s Baker Building. Approximately 30 high school students are watching his every move, some even suggesting which gases to use during the experiment. Ready can see their wide eyes and amazed looks as the nanotubes grow. He answers their questions and offers others in return. But there are no students with him in the lab. They are 66 miles away at Jasper County High School.
Ready is teaching a lesson, using videoconferencing technology, as part of GTRI’s Direct-to-Discovery (D2D) program. The five-year-old initiative connects Georgia Tech researchers with Georgia’s K-12 schools using high-speed Internet connections and high-definition, real-time video, allowing students to participate in research as it happens.
“I was introduced to science in the second grade during a field trip to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. I watched the scientists shatter flowers using liquid nitrogen,” said Ready, who regularly leads D2D lessons. “Every student should have the opportunity to discover and explore their own personal interests.”
Later in the lesson, Ready places the nanotubes under his scanning electron microscope, giving the students a glimpse of something impossible to replicate in their regular classroom.
Jasper County is the latest high school to participate in D2D. Earlier lessons have taken place with Barrow and Ware County schools, where students have peered underwater at the Georgia Aquarium and controlled telescopes in Australia to see the stars.
“Due to economics and distance, our students don’t have the chance to regularly attend or engage with museums, aquariums or labs for educational opportunities,” said Joseph Barrow, superintendent of Ware County Schools. “We saw D2D as a golden opportunity to figuratively tear down the brick and mortar walls of our system and to literally bring the world to our students.”
Because of D2D’s flexibility, Georgia Tech researchers don’t participate in every lecture. Sometimes schools use the technology to create their own opportunities. For instance, one of Ware County’s elementary schools connected with former First Lady Barbara Bush, who read students a story and spoke about the importance of reading. A high school class has connected with NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“It takes three to five years to develop a textbook, which is then used in a classroom for about 10 years,” said Jeff Evans, a GTRI principal research engineer and one of the D2D leaders. “By the time some students read it in the book, the technology is already obsolete. Direct to Discovery is an evolutionary leap beyond a textbook, and exposes students to the technologies of today and tomorrow.”
Mentoring the Next Generation
Studies show that students who do not perform well in algebra have limited career options in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields.
To help students pass through what educators call the algebra “gateway,” Georgia Tech offers All Kids Count in Atlanta. The math-tutoring program is available to students at Centennial Place Elementary School, as well as the B.E.S.T. Academy Middle and High Schools and Coretta Scott King Middle and High Schools – both of which are single gendered, African-American schools.
Each week, Georgia Tech work-study students work one-on-one with students in need of remedial help or assistance preparing for school and statewide, standardized tests. All Kids Count mentors also increase student interest in STEM by facilitating hands-on science activities and teaching students about technology through blogging, computer programming and other activities.
All Kids Count in Atlanta is just one of a plethora of mentoring programs offered by Georgia Tech.
The Pathways into STEM Program, another partnership between CEISMC and the Atlanta Public Schools, provides mentors to students at the B.E.S.T. Academy High School and Coretta Scott King High School.
Pathways mentors are AmeriCorps members who are in the schools between 12 and 40 hours per week. They help students not only develop their math and science skills, but also prepare them for the college and scholarship application processes.
“Most of these students are the first in their families to pursue college and they don’t know what is required or how the process works,” said Taneisha Lee, director of the Pathways Program. “Having a strong support system and information early on is very important for students to be successful.”
Indeed, the Pathways Program has made a significant impact. Over the last four years, nearly 90 percent of students who participated in Pathways went on to attend a two- or four-year college or university, and nearly half of the students pursued STEM degrees.
The Pathways Program has been so successful that CEISMC expanded it into Gwinnett County’s Lilburn and Radloff Middle Schools and Meadowcreek High School. It has also been incorporated into GoSTEM, a larger initiative that targets the Latino K-12 population in Gwinnett County.
Enhancing Outreach to Hispanics
Currently only 2 percent of Hispanics are employed in the STEM fields compared to 6 percent of whites and 15 percent of Asians, according to a recent report by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s Economic & Statistics Administration. Regardless of race or origin, higher education is a gateway to high-quality, high-paying STEM jobs, the report found. That’s why Georgia Tech is partnering with the Gwinnett County School System on a new initiative called GoSTEM that aims to enhance the K-12 STEM educational experience for Latinos, as well as strengthen the pipeline of Hispanic students pursuing STEM degrees in college.
Funded by The Goizueta Foundation, GoSTEM is a community-focused program that brings resources for students, families and teachers to address the factors that impede Latino students from going into STEM fields. GoSTEM tries to reach students early on in elementary school and continues support through middle and high school.
The program provides schools-based math, science and engineering college preparation programs conducted by Georgia Tech mentors, extracurricular activities such as robotic competitions and community service projects, as well as summer camps. Pathways to College, which is part of the Pathways Program, also helps Latino high school students with their college application process and provides them with STEM career information and resources.
“We want to get students interested in STEM careers and give them the tools they need to pursue their dreams,” said Diley Hernandez, GoSTEM program director. “This is a good step in preparing them for the future and opening their eyes to the array of opportunities and choices ahead of them.”
GoSTEM also conducts a variety of community-wide events and campus tours to empower Latino parents and guardians, and provide them with information on how to guide their students to college and possibly a STEM career. For K-12 teachers, GoSTEM offers fellowships for CEISMC’s Georgia Intern Fellowships for Teachers (GIFT) to help them develop and implement a STEM curriculum through a summer internship at Georgia Tech.
GoSTEM is currently being offered at one cluster of Gwinnett County Public Schools including six elementary schools, two middle schools and one high school. Hernandez plans to expand the reach of the community-wide programs in the years ahead.
Engaging African-Americans in Biomedical Engineering
Fewer than 3 percent of Ph.D.s are awarded to African-Americans. Georgia Tech is working to change that statistic.
To increase the number of under-represented minorities in STEM fields, Manu Platt, a professor in the Wallace H. Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering at Georgia Tech and Emory University, and Professor Emeritus Robert Nerem, have created Project ENGAGE (Engaging New Generations at Georgia Tech through Engineering).
The program is a partnership between Georgia Tech and two single-gendered African-American public schools – the all-male Benjamin Carson B.E.S.T Academy and the all-female Coretta Scott King Young Women’s Leadership Academy. It aims to introduce rising juniors and seniors to biomedical engineering by providing a hands-on experience in a research lab. The first cohort of students, six from each school, began their research fellowship at Georgia Tech in June 2013. During the summer, they will work 40 hours per week and they will continue on throughout the school year dedicating 15 to 20 hours per week.
The fellowship kicks off with a four-week biology boot camp, developed and taught by three high school teachers who spent last summer in Georgia Tech’s biomedical labs learning the fundamentals. After the boot camp, the student fellows move into the lab where they are mentored by either a Ph.D. candidate or a postdoctoral researcher. The goal is for each student to present his or her project at a science fair before the end of the school year.
Project ENGAGE is more than just the research fellowship. Ph.D. candidates and postdoctoral scholars regularly visit B.E.S.T. and Coretta Scott King high schools to introduce biomedical engineering topics and discuss their research goals. The teens are also invited to visit Platt’s lab at Georgia Tech throughout the year, either in person or virtually via high-bandwidth video conferencing developed by the Georgia Tech Research Institute (GTRI).
“The more barriers we remove between these students and research universities, the more likely they will feel that they, too, deserve to be on campus and can be just as successful,” Platt said.
Project ENGAGE, which also includes mentoring partnerships with CEISMC and may expand even further, is supported by the National Science Foundation through the Emergent Behaviors of Integrated Cellular Systems Science and Technology Center.
Manufacturing a Better Future
Bringing manufacturing back to the United States could create new high-quality jobs for Americans. Georgia Tech is helping ensure that the next generation has the interest and skills necessary to fill those positions.
With the help of a $7.3 million grant from the National Science Foundation, Georgia Tech and the Griffin-Spalding County School System have teamed up to bring manufacturing technologies to middle and high school students in this low-income and highly diverse school district
The five-year initiative – led by Georgia Tech’s George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering in collaboration with CEISMC – is bringing advanced manufacturing learning experiences, such as creating items using rapid prototyping and 3-D printers – to Griffin-Spalding County students in the 6th through 9th grades.
Called Advanced Manufacturing and Prototyping Integrated to Unlock Potential (AMP-IT-UP), the program allows students to learn about manufacturing by exploring their creativity and creating a physical solution to an engineering challenge using the engineering design process and both traditional and advanced manufacturing tools.
“With AMP-IT-UP we hope to inspire all students to connect with STEM fields,” said CEISMC associate director and AMP-IT-UP program director Marion Usselman. “In particular, we want to catch those students who might be our future creative innovators but who are at risk of falling through the cracks in our current book and test-driven education.”
Student classroom experiences are broadened by extracurricular clubs and competitions provided through the project. Georgia Tech faculty and students are mentoring Griffin-Spalding students in clubs such as the Junior Makers Club and robotic competitions including FIRST LEGO League and FIRST Robotics. Griffin-Spalding students have also been invited to campus for events such as the Nerdy Derby and the InVenture Prize.
“It’s about creating students who are aware, who are capable and who are enthusiastic about engineering, math, science and its role in the future advancement of our country,” said CEISMC Program Director and AMP-IT-UP co-principal investigator Jeff Rosen.
Additionally, through AMP-IT-UP, Georgia Tech faculty will investigate how the program affects academic engagement, content understanding and student persistence in the field. Georgia Tech and the school system have been awarded $2.9 million for the first two years of the grant, with another $4.3 million to follow in 2014.
Coding for All
At Lanier High School, Candela Rojas has created a 30-second, computerized remix of beats and samples despite knowing nothing about computer programming six weeks prior. On a recent morning, the girl who has loved music for years and fell in love with coding in days was sharing headphones with one of the biggest names in hip hop. Gimel “Young Guru” Keaton, the computer engineering wizard behind 10 albums for superstar Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter, offers advice and encouragement.
Young Guru approached Georgia Tech in 2012 with a goal of selling students on the impact of music, computers and technology. Within months, he was contributing original beats and loops to EarSketch, an NSF-funded initiative that was developed by researchers Jason Freeman and Brian Magerko. The duo built EarSketch with the intent of using musical remixes to introduce high school students – especially minorities and young women – to the world of computer programming. The software utilizes the Python programming language and Reaper, a digital audio workstation program similar to those used in recording studios.
“We think that we can get students more motivated to enter computer science careers by placing introductory computing education into a really interesting, fun context,” said Freeman, an associate professor in the Georgia Tech School of Music. “Instead of writing programs that sort lists or crunch numbers, students learn all of these skills while making music.”
Lanier High became the first high school to try it when 75 freshmen in its Center for Design and Technology gave EarSketch an eight-week test run this winter. Thirty five percent of the class is female.
Mike Reilly, a former computer programmer who became a teacher several years ago, worked with Georgia Tech to implement the course. A year ago, three of his freshmen chose to continue coding classes as sophomores. He thinks 25 of this year’s freshmen will sign up.
“Our students now see computer programming as a skill set, rather than something that is hard to understand,” Reilly says. “At a minimum, this project is teaching them to respect and recognize the power of coding.”
Discussions are underway to expand EarSketch to other metro Atlanta schools. The curriculum and software are available for download on the project’s website and available to teachers across the nation.
“By leveraging the collaborative nature of remix composition and musically oriented computer programming, EarSketch may provide a successful alternative to the cultural issues that computer games have in the engagement of minorities,” said Magerko, an assistant professor in the School of Literature, Media and Communication.
It has already had an impact on Brie Edwards. Like most students, the African-American girl was lost on the first day of class.
“I wasn’t sure I could do it,” Brie admitted. “But the more I practiced, the easier it became and the more I enjoyed it. Now I don’t want to leave the computer. I know that I’ll study programming in college.”
This article originally appeared in the Spring-Summer 2013 issue of Research Horizons, Georgia Tech’s research magazine.
Projects described in this article were supported by the National Science Foundation (NSF) under award numbers DUE-1238089 and CNS-1138649. Any opinions expressed are those of the principal investigators and may not necessarily represent the official views of the NSF.