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The Sweet Sounds of Coding: promoting digital inclusion via remote instruction of introductory Python in a musical context

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2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity)


New Orleans, Louisiana

Publication Date

February 20, 2022

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February 20, 2022

End Date

July 20, 2022

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Technical Session 1 - Paper 4: The Sweet Sounds of Coding: promoting digital inclusion via remote instruction of introductory Python in a musical context

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Diversity and CoNECD Paper Sessions

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Sommer Anjum University of Pittsburgh Orcid 16x16

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Graduate student at the University of Pittsburgh committed to fostering attitudes of equity and inclusion by championing STEM outreach in the local community

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Maria K Jantz University of Pittsburgh

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Kirk Holbrook

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James M Churilla Pittsburgh Public Schools Pittsburgh Miller PreK-5

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The Sweet Sounds of Coding: promoting digital inclusion via remote instruction of introductory Python in a musical context Sommer Anjum*, Maria Jantz*, James Churilla, Kirk Holbrook, Steven Abramowitch * These authors contributed equally to this work.

Keywords: pre-College, race/ethnicity, Socio-Economic Status, computer science

Students from underrepresented groups begin to drop out of the pathway to STEM careers at an early age due to factors such as limited community-based exposure to STEM programming, and the scarcity of representative role models in STEM careers. These issues are compounded further as many universities do not equitably share resources to support surrounding communities. Introducing coding to pre-college students enriches their exposure to STEM fields and equips them with programming skills that are in high demand for jobs on both a local and global scale. Therefore, to promote STEM engagement for local youth, our chapter of the Biomedical Engineering Society, in partnership with the University of Pittsburgh Community Engagement Center in the Hill District (CEC), introduced coding classes that allow students to produce their own musical compositions. Recent studies suggest that integrating topics that are traditionally decoupled from coding, such as music, into a coding course can improve attitudes toward computing for underrepresented students (Freeman et al, 2014). This attracts students who may not be interested otherwise and empowers them to express themselves in a fun way while learning practical skills. In our workshops, we teach 4th-12th grade students to code in Python using an adapted curriculum for the EarSketch platform developed by Georgia Tech. Due to the move to virtual learning in recent months, it is important to note that EarSketch is an online platform that requires no additional setup. This made our program more accessible because students and their families did not need to worry about transportation to and from a venue or equipment beyond a basic computer with internet access. If necessary, the CEC provided students with a wifi hotspot, a laptop, and a stipend as a way to provide both technological access and to incentivize participation. Our team of University of Pittsburgh students and faculty has experience in coding, music, and outreach in local schools, making us a multidisciplinary team capable of meeting the needs of students in our program. This program began with seed grant funding that was an outgrowth of the CEC’s STEAM Studio planning grant, supported by the PNC Foundation, which invited collaborators from 24 university units and 20 community-based organizations to co-create a vision for addressing the digital divide in the Hill District. We ran two workshops, which both focused on underrepresented students in the Greater Hill District and Homewood, communities that have historically faced significant socioeconomic challenges. The median household income in the Hill District is significantly lower than the City of Pittsburgh’s. In Bedford Dwellings, the Hill District’s oldest and last remaining public housing community, the median household income is approximately $16,000, and over 70% of children live below the poverty line. The first workshop, in the Fall of 2020, was with two classes of 4th graders at Miller African Centered Academy (Miller ACA), an elementary school within walking distance of Bedford Dwellings. Miller ACA has a 99% minority population and 100% of families qualify for free and reduced lunch. In order to most effectively reach this young audience, we began by teaching algorithmic thinking, including “robot pictionary” with students giving us instructions to draw a specific object. In the second workshop, in the spring of 2021, we taught 9th-12th graders from the Greater Hill District. In both workshops, we introduced the students to variables, functions, how to structure their programs, and more computer science concepts, with pedagogy adapted to each level. As much as possible, we worked in small groups in virtual breakout rooms so that instructors had maximal interaction with students. This was critical in the virtual environment so students could share their screens and walk through errors or demonstrate their accomplishments. During these workshops, we covered examples of Black engineers and computer scientists through history to provide historical background and representative role models. Along the way, we provided constructive criticism and encouraged students to pursue careers that involve programming. For students who were particularly interested in programming, we challenged them during class, while uplifting those who were less interested. We encouraged students to explain concepts to each other to enhance their technological communication skills. We worked with a set of 32 students in the fall in partnership with Miller ACA’s science teacher, Mr. Churilla, who incorporated these classes into his weekly instruction. He was eager to provide opportunities for his students that were innovative, engaging, and related to STEM fields. Each week, he detailed how his students would excitedly anticipate the coming lesson and observed their growth in math and computing concepts. Students shared in the chat that their beats were “fire” and were excited to share their screens with their classmates. At the high school level, more complicated coding concepts such as different variable types, conditional statements, and loops were introduced, Additionally, we discussed aspects of musical composition such as measures, time signatures, and navigating a digital audio workstation. In a post-course survey, the majority of students expressed interest in taking another class like this and all students said that they could see themselves using coding in the future. Instructors met after every class session in order to share feedback and find ways to adapt the course to student needs in the next session. We had many instructors who wanted to remain involved. Instructors felt that teaching this class was a good learning experience for them, and this experience invigorated their interest in being involved with supporting underserved communities. This mutually beneficial relationship between the university and the community is an excellent model to sustain this type of program moving forward. Due to the web-based nature of EarSketch, students can make music on their own time to share with friends and family using the skills they learned in the course. We plan to keep this program running in the future as part of a series of events supported by the CEC to promote digital literacy and equity in the Pittsburgh area.

Anjum, S., & Jantz, M. K., & Holbrook, K., & Churilla, J. M. (2022, February), The Sweet Sounds of Coding: promoting digital inclusion via remote instruction of introductory Python in a musical context Paper presented at 2022 CoNECD (Collaborative Network for Engineering & Computing Diversity) , New Orleans, Louisiana.

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