The Boys & Girls Clubs of America is the latest youth group to roll out an organization-wide computer science initiative, joining the ranks of community institutions like the Girl Scouts—which introduced cybersecurity badges earlier this year—and 4-H, which expanded their STEM programming over the summer.
A computer science curriculum debuted this month and will cover coding, computational thinking, game design and app development. The program was developed in partnership with Microsoft, a long-time Boys & Girls Club supporter.
Emphasizing computational skills in the clubs is part of a broader “evolution” of the organization’s approach to digital literacy, said Edwin Link, national vice president of educational foundations and academic innovations at Boys & Girls Clubs of America, in an interview.
A focus on bridging the digital divide, opening up access to computers and the internet, has widened to include teaching digital competencies that will prepare youth for a competitive workforce.
“We wanted to focus on our club members learning soft skills, such as critical thinking and logic, and dovetailing that with hard skills that are related to computer science: coding, and app development,” said Link.
For Microsoft, partnering with the Boys & Girls Club—and other youth organizations, like 4-H—offers offers a way to raise the skills of a vast number of youth, said Mary Snapp, corporate vice president and head of Microsoft Philanthopies.
The company is placing a newfound priority, she said, on “parts of the country that may have been feeling—and probably were—more left behind.”
The Boys & Girls Club, with locations everywhere from remote and rural areas to big cities to military bases, is a “natural partner” in this effort, said Snapp.
The organization worked with Microsoft to design a curriculum that could be used in any club across the country, regardless of internet access. The curriculum is a pathway with different options for teaching computational thinking, said Link, and some lessons don’t require that students use devices or software.
“Some [clubs] have the Cadillac of connectivity and hardware, and some don’t,” he said.
Link visited a club in Pine Bluff, Arkansas, that taught basic logic and coding syntax by “programming” him to move from the front door to a seat in the classroom. The club members wrote instructions on a piece of paper, mimicking computer code, that he followed to maneuver around the room.
But even with the adaptable curriculum, students can only go so far in developing computer science skills without access to a computer.
The Boys & Girls Club piloted the curriculum in 60 clubs across the country—all of which had reliable internet connectivity.
As students make progress through the lessons in the curriculum, said Link, “the level of sophistication and need for resources, like computers, do go up.”
“We thought it was important that the clubs who did participate in the pilot with us were able to advance to the entirety of the program,” he said.
Currently, the curriculum is available for all clubs to use. It’s up to individual locations to decide how frequently they want to use the lessons, said Link, a choice that he hopes will be driven by student interest.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Digital Education blog.