Jackie Smalls of Code.org - Fireside Chat
Join for a special fireside chat between Code.org executive Jackie Smalls and Aly Cabral, Director of Product at Cloudflare, overseeing Cloudflare Workers.
Jackie Smalls is Code.org Chief Programs Officer, managing Code.org’s curriculum, professional learning programs, and our nationwide network of regional partners + facilitators to expand CS opportunities in schools.
Hi, and welcome to our Fireside Chat today. So today I have Jackie Smalls, who is the Chief Programs Officer for Code .org, and really in charge of the curriculum, professional learning programs, and their nationwide network of regional partners and facilitators, really aimed at expanding computer science opportunities into schools.
So thank you so much, Jackie, for being here today and talking with us.
I'm super excited for the conversation we have in front of us. But I'd like to start off by having you give us a little bit of an overview about Code .org's mission and your role there.
Sure. Well, first of all, I get a fancy title as Chief Programs Officer to really just speak to and be able to say, I wake up every day thinking of ways in which we can provide access to computer science to all students.
I mean, that's a great responsibility, but at the same time challenging and fun in itself, knowing that you can impact a student's life by simply just giving them the opportunity to be able to engage in computer science, and not just coding, but computer science education as its whole.
So we're a nonprofit, and like I said, dedicated to expanding access to computer science, also with a focus of students that are not always represented, young women, underrepresented racial and ethnic groups that you typically would not see in computer science, and making it just as important as math, reading, and science in K-12 education.
And we do so in several different ways. So many folks know about our Hour of Code, which is where it all started about seven to eight years ago.
Hadi Partovi thought of, you know, how can we get students excited about coding?
So let's just take one hour out of the school day and have everybody code.
And so really building excitement around just being able to code, to expanding it to now K-12 education, where you could have computer science as a core subject to learn.
And so Hour of Code is what started it all, but we also realized that we have to promote state and federal policy to really ensure that every student has the opportunity to engage in computer science.
We also prepare teachers, like you said, around professional learning and how do we make sure any teacher, so you don't have to be a computer science teacher to you know, to teach computer science as early as kindergarten.
A kindergarten teacher teaching computer science and students learning that as early as kindergarten.
Amazing, and the kids do such a wonderful job.
And then we also create courses for teachers and students that are engaging. So whether you've also gone through our professional learning and able to see like what's the best practice in implementing computer science, or if you're a teacher that wants to just access our curriculum, which is free and open resource to anyone, you can do so as well if you just want to get started.
And so making really high quality engaging resources for both teachers and students so that again they can have the opportunity to learn about computer science.
Yeah, that makes a ton of sense to me.
Like starting with teachers, starting as early as kindergarten.
In my own life, so I studied mechanical engineering in college. I took some coding classes my freshman year, and I didn't code before college.
And I actually felt like I was behind, like so many people in those classes.
And I was surprised by that because I didn't feel that way in English.
I didn't feel that way in math.
Really, like it was just my first time taking a computer science class and for some reason I was unprepared to feel like I wasn't prepared.
And I wonder how common that is in your view.
I'm very interested in learning a little bit more about that.
Yeah, well great question. And just to kind of give you a perspective of like where some of the statistics lie.
So we have 57 million students on code.org. So that's U.S.
wide and internationally. But only 48 percent of those students are of underrepresented groups.
Wow. Only 47 percent of students in high need schools. And only 46 percent of female students.
So that tells you, you know, we haven't even reached the other half of students that we still need to reach across, you know, all different areas.
So I think you're not the only student that has felt that way, even myself.
I do recall taking maybe one computer science class and I want to say it was elementary school, but it's like a it's a memory, a very faint memory.
Not one that it was part of my core educational experience.
And I wasn't encouraged to enter a STEM field until I got into college, right.
So we're trying to change that narrative and that students will be exposed to computer science in K -12.
So it's not something that they wait to maybe think about in college, but it's an opportunity they could either choose to say, yep, computer science is a field that I want to enter.
Or if not, it's something that I was exposed to at least have some general understanding about how things work around me.
How do I use those skills of problem solving and critical thinking that I used while I was engaged in programming to actually understand how things work?
How are, you know, what's the magic behind this computer that we're using every day?
I think is an empowering thing to students and we want to make sure that they have that opportunity.
And computer science isn't just for a certain zip code, for a certain group of students, for a certain gender.
We want to make sure that all students have access so they can make that choice of whether or not it's something they would want to pursue.
That makes a lot sense.
Now let's talk a little bit about curriculum. So I know you're in charge of Code.org's curriculum, responsible for that.
In your view, how should a curriculum creator start when designing a new program?
Like what are the steps from going from idea to a solid plan?
Well, there's some principles around curriculum, you know, creation and design, as well as about professional learning.
Of course, there's standards.
So I just want to, you know, there are computer science standards for K-12.
We want to make sure that students are learning what we think they should be learning so that if they choose to go into, say, AP, you know, take the AP exam in high school, there's a trajectory that we put them on to be successful in that.
But I think at the very core of curriculum, you need to think about the student and what is engaging to the student.
And so we could create something that we think is great for us as adult learners, but students learn differently.
We have to think about different modalities of students and how do they learn best.
We also have to give something that's challenging, but something that's also accessible in a way that, yes, you could be hands-on in the computer and you can be programming, but let's take a step back and let's think about some of the unplugged activities that we have.
So it's not just a bunch of screen time as well as what we built in.
We deliberately said we need to think about, we want students to be able to talk, to collaborate, and we also want students to see themselves in the curriculum.
So we have to make a curriculum that's accessible.
Our curriculum is deliberately designed based on the National Science Foundation-funded research that's leveling the playing field for young women and for students of color.
If you don't see where you could see yourself doing something within the curriculum that's totally isolated of what you do on your day-to-day, it's probably something that students won't be engaged in.
So they have to see that, you know, it's something that they see themselves doing and it's something that they're able to do.
And it's not easy. You talked about having a background in engineering and in computer science, and we know it's not easy, but is it challenging but yet accessible is what we really have to think about.
Is it equity-focused? Are we focused on just a certain type of student? Are we thinking all students can learn best and these are the supports that we're going to have in place?
And I think that's at the core, but it also at the core of a curriculum is having teachers prepared to teach that curriculum.
And you can give teachers any resource.
First of all, we want it to be high quality, but we also, that's why we have our professional learning that is accompanied with our curriculum so that we can make sure that the best practices are also implemented in our computer science classrooms.
Got it. Got it. That makes a lot of sense. And you talked a lot about there about engagement, like how can you tell if a program was successful in engaging the students?
How do you refine that engagement over time? Yeah.
So we do, we, we take a lot of stake into investing in our teachers and hearing their feedback as well as students.
So we do a lot of surveys, of course, in terms of how did this course work for you?
We also look at our data. So while students are using our, in our platform, we're looking to see how long they've been engaged in a particular course that they might be working in their creations.
We have all, we look to see what they're creating to see if it's an, it's some of the most amazing things that you should see that we actually have that students are developing.
And so again, through surveys, through insight groups, we have a lot of times where we'll bring teachers in, we'll hear their feedback, we'll make adjustments.
We also do student focus groups as well. We before COVID, we were actually in classrooms also looking and evaluating to see the level of engagements for students to be, you know, to have that data to inform us as well.
So we're looking at qualitative data, quantitative data, and anecdotal data to inform the things that we need to improve upon.
So we can, again, just keep getting better and better at it as we want to make sure it continues to be high quality, engaging to all students.
That, that, that is amazing. I'm glad that we're able to kind of like get these feedback loop, like the feedback loop is the most important part, I feel like, of any kind of development of any program.
So it's really amazing that you have all of this rich data to kind of pull from there.
I just, because you brought it up around COVID and not being able to get some of those in-classroom data points, in general, has the pandemic changed the curriculum?
Has it impacted it in any way that is notable for you?
Yes, very much so. So, you know, we're talking at a time when last year, this time, right, everything was shutting down.
And our team immediately paused and said, what are we going to do to address the fact that we know students won't necessarily be in school, or there's going to be in school, there's going to be hybrid, or there's going to be out of school environments.
So how do we address that?
Of course, across our all three of our courses, which is Computer Science Fundamentals, which is for elementary level.
And then we have Computer Science Discoveries, which is typically our middle school up to ninth grade, and then Computer Science Principles, which is for our high school courses.
And we took those and we modified them for all three environments, so that if a teacher knew that they were going to be in a hybrid environment, then we said, these are some suggestions for best practices within your hybrid, you know, environment that you'll be teaching students.
But we also created and made sure that there were unplugged activities more so than before, because we know that not just because everybody was home, they would have access, right?
Yeah, computer to the Internet.
So what are some things you can do that you don't necessarily have to be plugged into a computer?
And how do we balance that? So we try to ensure that you know, there's still a level of engagement.
And we also got real creative, where we had code breaks.
So code breaks was something that we did over the span over the summer, which we had a lot of different celebrities from Bill Gates to Ashton Kushner.
I'm trying to think of some other folks that we've had that Hill Harper and his son, where we did coding for like an hour live, anywhere anyone could participate, especially parents that were home with their students, how can you just engage in an hour of what we call code break, take a break, right, for all that you're doing, and have fun with us.
And we impacted 1000s of students that joined us.
And it was so great, you should see the myriad of faces across the screen to see how many students along with their parents were learning how to code.
And we took that as an opportunity.
We also changed the way that we facilitated our professional learning to an online platform.
So not at the the capacity that we've done in the past, to where we were able to still support over 3000 teachers.
Wow, this summer and learning, taking professional learning in order to implement computer science into the school year.
So in ways COVID has pushed us to think beyond what we were already structured in, and to see how we can still engage through a virtual environment, and still have the same impact that we've had before.
Oh, wow. Yeah. It seems like, like, just one thing you touched on, right, not taking the Internet for granted in this world, right?
Schools, you have readily accessible Internet at homes, you don't necessarily, right.
So I think even that seems like a big shift.
And quite a challenge to implement as quickly as the world changed.
Also, just in, you know, not to underscore the, it showed, you know, like the gaps that we are either creating, or the gaps that needed to be closed in the first place.
Because, you know, especially in our rural areas where Internet is not accessible as much as you would think.
Yeah. You know, COVID having to expose that, and have organizations beyond code.org, who some that we partner with, that said, we got to make sure we get access.
So we also did some work around making sure that there was access to broadband, but also access to computers.
And we played somewhat of a role in that and identifying where those needs were.
And we tried to support those efforts too. That's amazing. That's great. Let's pivot a little bit.
So last month was Black History Month in the US, of course.
And you previously were the head of programs at Black Girls Code. I know code.org is doing a lot to encourage Black students to pursue computer science.
Can you speak to what inspires you to take on such an important initiative?
Oh, yeah. And not to, you know, to give all credits where it's due, working with Kimberly Bryant, the founder of Black Girls Code, and what they're doing in their direct approach to girls of color from 7 to 17 is amazing effort in what they're doing.
My background was more embedded in education.
So I just thought it another opportunity to how can we make sure that computer science is part of that everyday education too, to all students.
But you're right. In terms of our efforts for attending to the population of students that, again, are not typically represented in computer science, especially being a Black female, you know, I find it also my responsibility to also work towards that effort to make sure that that is an opportunity for all students, and in particular, young women and young women of color.
And so there's a couple of things that we did in particular in Black History Month.
We actually had a created a video of all inspiring of people of color speak to their experience in computer science, whether they were a founder of a computer science organization, or just were a student and remember saying, this is what I experienced.
So giving that voice and elevating the voice of those that were in computer science, so students could be inspired.
So they could also see, oh, that person's interested in computer science, you know, to think that Steph Curry, be it that basketball player, but was speaking to the importance of computer science from a founder, a female founder of, you know, of a computer science organization, who says, well, I didn't have that experience, but look at the experience that I'm creating for other students.
And so that they could see that as an inspiration. And the video went viral, of course, in terms of how many that it reached, but there's some deeper work that we're doing, and not just for Black History Month, but we've been doing all along.
So when we talk about professional learning, we have a rubric in which we provide scholarships to teachers, but it's really geared towards a demographic that speaks to the underrepresented students that that teacher teaches in that environment.
So we look, when you apply for a Code.org scholarship, we're asking you to also have the demographics that we want to reach.
So that's one way that we support and try to promote students of color to participate more so.
Yeah. In our videos within our curriculum, we've increased the number of videos that you would see of diversity within our videos as well within our curriculum.
So again, it's not just seeing what you would typically think a computer scientist would look like.
It's what anybody could look like, including those young women of color and students of color.
We also are geared towards developing, and I can talk about this some more, in particular young women, we have a grant in which we are, it's called EIR grant, which we're focused in on young women and how do you recruit for young women into computer science.
Because it's one thing to have access to computer science.
It's another thing to have students actually in the seats where they're participating.
So if you look at the data of access, it's improving, but we have a long ways to go to continue to have that participation data increase as well.
So there's several different ways that we've tried to address and have within our curriculum.
Also within RPL, how do you build an equitable, inclusive classroom to speak to what it means to be part of a computer science community that is diversified.
And so there's several different approaches that we're taking, all exciting, but hopefully to really target and increase the number of Black students that we want to see in our courses.
That makes sense. One thing you just mentioned was that access seems to be improving, but participation may not be.
Interested in understanding a little bit more about what are some of the challenges there or broadly in getting more participation in computer science curriculum across underrepresented groups and what's the opportunity and your optimism around change?
Well, I think there's a obviously a tremendous opportunity for improvement.
And you mentioned we do have a regional partner network.
So when I speak to our regional partner network, those are universities, nonprofits, entities around STEM across the United States that we partner with, that they go directly to the schools and they're doing recruitment.
And I think one thing that we are focused on is looking at the data because that will help us target the schools that one, may not have access at all to computer science.
So how do we talk to that school district to say, this is why computer science is so important.
This is where you might want to adopt and implement.
So we do that in the support of our regional partner network. So I think knowing the data is really important.
Most recent data that showed up in 2020 was around our Gallup poll that told us, what are these numbers really look like in terms of interest?
And I think that's where it all starts. And so we're actually seeing slightly more interest in underrepresented students than we see in white students.
So black students are about 42%, Hispanic are about 41%, where white students is 36%.
Wow. A little optimism, right? Now that interest. So let's be on interest now that there's an interest.
Now let's break it down a little bit further.
So that's you know, groups, but like, what about gender in terms of young women?
Slightly lower. So it's about 38%. And then there's, you know, in terms of boys or comparison to boys, it's about 25%.
And about 50%, like we talked about earlier.
And so I think it's a matter of how do we ensure that if you are a young woman sitting in the seat in a say, fifth grade classroom, let's start young.
Yeah, give the confidence and or experience that, yes, this is something that you can participate in and where you're welcomed.
And where we want to see you leading in terms of computer science.
So it's be it's not just the interest. It's how do we get there?
And how do we sustain that interest? Right? You have access to the data.
So each one of our partners has data within their state to say, here's access, here's participation, then they can figure out how do they target that participation.
And the recruitment, we made an effort to say, how do you recruit for diversity?
So it's not just if you walk into the classroom, and you're still seeing the same types of students that you're seeing, or do we see a diversified group of students?
So what do we do in recruitment efforts? What's the interest in recruitment?
If students know that they could create something that might solve a problem in their community, they might be a little bit more interested.
We just series for Black History Month, where we had some very well experienced, gave so much a wealth of knowledge panel, speakers, and their various aspects of computer science, one from Harvard from Seattle used to from Microsoft.
And one of the things they said about developing their curriculum is asking students, what do you want to learn?
Well, our grandmother has to walk to the grocery store, to pick up, you know, groceries, but has to walk, it's hard.
How can I program a robot that might help my grandmother do that?
If they see that, then it's saying to them, this is something worthwhile learning and doing and being engaged in.
And that's where I think you take the data, you take the interest, the engagement, and that will create more of a momentum than we've seen before.
Slight uptick, but we have a long way to go. Got it. That makes a lot of sense.
So setting computer science in the context of the problems these kids want to solve, right?
And I think that makes a ton of sense, even in motivating myself, right?
It's like the intangible isn't super motivating. The tangible thing I want to solve is the thing that motivates me to get to work, and learn.
That makes a lot of sense.
I'm super excited and optimistic as well. So pivoting again, you have so much experience in working at the intersection of education and computer science.
Now, general question for you, like what tends to motivate kids generally?
And is there anything different about computer science that you've found? I think it's probably the same principle for any subject area, right?
So I think again, it's one engagement, and I think it's possibilities.
When we box students in, I think that's where we box in their creativity, their ability to problem solve, to express themselves in the way that they want to, and to be selective about what they want to learn.
I think when we're focused and it's student -centered around how kids learn best, and how we can best engage them, you're more apt to have that sustainability and interest.
It's unfortunate that both you and I didn't have that experience into college.
Well, what would make a student more engaged?
Like Dance Party. So we have this app where students can engage in our tool around Dance Party, the popular music that they hear today.
So is it through music?
Is it through art? Is it through creation? Is it through a hands-on learning?
We have to figure out a way that we can show students the connections between computer science and everything that is around their world.
I have a 14 -year-old.
He's telling me, I've learned everything that I need to know in order to be successful.
Right? He's only 14. I know how to read, Mom. I know how to do math. But I think it's all about the application part of it.
Our kids nowadays have access to so much information and so many different things.
We have to show them how it's applicable.
If we're just teaching them outside of the context, if we're teaching them how to code and not code to solve for a problem or to create, then we're not showing them the possibilities, and I think that's where we lose the interest.
So the connections that they can make, what they can solve as a problem. I worked with 11-year-old girls, and we asked them to think about what could they possibly create as an app that would be towards their interest but could also solve a problem.
What do you think the 11 -year-old girl, group of 11-year-old girls, about four or five of them, came up with of what they wanted to develop an app for?
What subject do you think they might have? I don't know. It's so hard for me to put myself in the shoes.
What did they come up with? I was shocked, but not necessarily.
They said they wanted to create a mental health app. Oh, wow. That is not what I would have guessed at all.
11-year-old girls like I was shocked at first, but actually if I looked across all the girls that were in this group, many of them said that.
And so here they're recognizing within COVID and the challenges that we've had around just dealing with the day-to-day and the stress that it's caused.
We don't think it's causing the stress of 11. It sure is causing stress on an 11-year-old.
They're like, how could we develop an app that allowed the community to support you in dealing with the problems that you are facing?
And how can they just connect with someone to say, I need help or I'm not having a good day.
So they were thinking like, here's an emoji. If I click on that emoji to tell you how I'm expressed, I'm automatically placed into that community that are feeling the same way so that we can talk about our common feelings.
That to them will make them work really hard towards developing and programming something that will get them to that idea.
I think it goes again back to that application of how can this be useful to me as an 11-year-old, as a 15-year-old, as a 17-year-old, and then carry me into, say, a career or college opportunity as a software developer or engineer.
But if not, that's okay because we know that everyone's not going to be.
But how can we give them the choice that they can make that for themselves?
And it's exciting to hear that they're empowered then to go solve the things they're interested in solving, which is the things that are impacting them, right?
And it's like, if we don't inspire more underrepresented groups in computer science, maybe those problems are going to go unsolved.
It's like, these are the people who are going to solve those problems.
And that gets me really excited.
And I think there's other things we need to think about when we think about underrepresented groups.
You often find that there could be a struggle in math or there could be some other challenging issues that haven't been addressed.
So therefore, I didn't pursue a computer science career or college experience.
And I think that we have to think of holistically. What are we doing in terms of education that is addressing why students are not interested?
So not just computer science, but how are we also attending to all the different skills that need to be built in order to be successful?
And so again, onus to organizations and companies that are hiring, are they creating a demand?
Are we providing mentors to students so that they can say, I'm struggling with this, but at the same time, I'm going to stick with it because I have the support that I need.
We had a student panel discussion on one student that didn't take computer science.
So it was a female student, didn't go down computer science, but went into the science field.
Wasn't interested necessarily in computer science, but she did say all of my friends were part of the computer science group.
So I learned a little bit from them.
Then we had a Black young male and a Black young female. The Black young female now works for, I want to say Microsoft, but she said the difference that it would have made for her is that if she would have saw a teacher that looked like her who actually taught computer science, because all she saw was Black men or white males teaching computer science.
So it wasn't that it deterred her, but she would have been that much more interested if she saw someone that looked like her as well.
So that's another thing. We have to address the recruitment of diversity of teachers teaching computer science as well.
Yeah, and just having role models, right?
Those are your role models when you're going up in the education system, right?
So it's very important that that group is diverse too, and it's representative of the people we want in the workforce.
And understanding the different careers, it's not just like you might not just be sitting behind a computer.
You have to understand that you'll be collaborating with others. There's a lot of folks that like, there are some engineers that will be working with themselves, but there's others that are collaborating across the world, and maybe that's what some students want for themselves.
So we have to show them also the possibilities and not just what we think is typical of what you would see in terms of computer science.
That makes so much sense. Thanks so much, Jackie. I think we're at time now for our session, but this is incredible.
I've learned so much today, and thank you so much for walking us through all this.
Thank you. I can't believe time went so fast.
I know, flew by. All right, have a good one.