Skip to main content

Cultivating Computational Thinkers

Through NSF CAREER award, Jakita Thomas empowers the next generation of women in STEM

By Teri Greene

Auburn Engineering faculty member Jakita Thomas’ passion project has been years in the making. It began with 20 sixth-grade African-American girls who lived throughout metro Atlanta, some from inner-city sections, some from working-class families and others from affluent neighborhoods.

These girls on the verge of entering their teenage years had little knowledge of the field of computing and no knowledge of the workings of algorithms. Thomas’ mission: put them at the starting line with Scratch, the most basic of video game-creation platforms, and lead them through the process of algorithmic thinking via one of their favorite pastimes. Now, the girls would become more than avid consumers of video games. They would be creators, armed with enough knowledge to venture into the cutting-edge world of virtual reality with systems including Oculus.

From the outset, Thomas suspected the project would outgrow its initial aims. Three years later, all participants were still on board, ready for more immersion. She applied for a no-cost extension of her NSF CAREER Award to continue to track what would happen in the two years that followed.

The findings of this complex longitudinal study could become a working model to increase access to the STEM fields’ underserved populations, Thomas said. The results could shift paradigms.

In the past five years, Supporting Computational Algorithmic Thinking, or SCAT, has allowed Thomas, the Philpott-WestPoint Stevens Associate Professor of Computer Science and Software Engineering, to collect data on how the girls perceive themselves as game designers and critical thinkers.

The project aims to shatter barriers and assumptions. As a black woman in engineering, Thomas is acutely aware that she is one of a handful in her field. The girls she has been tracking are oblivious to any such statistics.

“Most of my SCAT scholars may not even know that black women are heavily underrepresented in computer science,” Thomas said, citing the most recent Computer Research Association Taulbee Survey. It showed that black women received three percent of the bachelor’s degrees in computer science awarded in the United States in 2016 – and that was a drop from the previous year, in which that group received four percent of those degrees.

“The numbers have been single-digit for years and years. And if you look at Native American women and Latina women, it’s the same,” she said. “It’s abysmal.”

To recruit her first scholars for a yearlong pilot study, Thomas leveraged organizations including Boys and Girls Clubs, black churches and teachers. They found dozens of girls and their parents who were up to the challenge. That pilot study yielded such positive results – though they knew they were in a limited program, some girls in the pilot program begged to be allowed to continue – that Thomas set out to begin her three-year study in earnest.

The 20 sixth-grade girls who entered the now five-year-old SCAT program will soon enter 11th grade. They remain devoted to their progress, continuing to meet with Thomas monthly.

Parents were enthusiastic to enroll their daughters.

Tarenia Carthan saw SCAT as an opportunity to open new doors in tech for her daughter, Asia, and expand her knowledge of the field.

“When she asks for rewards, she always wants video game cards. So I decided to find her a program that would put her on the other side of it, not just to play them but to actually create them,” Carthan said.

Asia was game for it.

“It’s a really exciting experience because you get to know about working with other people,” Asia said, adding that she became an expert in the Scratch video game creation platform and its algorithm, something one of her teachers at school refers to often. “What he talks about, I already know, so I have an advantage. It’s actually more fun than work.”

In one of their latest projects, the scholars created digital comic books in which a young, black woman is cast in the role of superhero. Then, they put those superheroes in motion, making them the lead characters in their video games.

Thomas said it was notable that those superheroes were not all based on the characteristics of the girls creating them. Several scholars created a united front of sister superheroes.

That speaks to the scholars’ level of cooperation, a critical component in the study. Thomas allowed the girls to form groups, with one caveat: they could not team up with girls they already knew from school or their neighborhoods. They were experiencing teamwork and cooperation, many of them for the first time.

“They formed a kind of sisterhood around creating video games,” Thomas said. 

SCAFFOLDS OF LEARNING

The scholars were immersed in a cognitive-apprenticeship environment, structured on the educational scaffolding technique. For the first two years, an African-American computer science professor facilitated the group and modeled the way the girls needed to approach the learning process. Then, a group of undergraduate students — also black women — joined in, providing “just-in-time” scaffolding, catching the girls whenever they got stuck in the process, providing subtle pushes to help them along.

In the final learning stage, novices who picked up the knowledge at an accelerated pace stepped in to help, or scaffold, their fellow scholars.

“We ended up designing this extremely intersectional learning environment that spoke strongly to the needs of these girls,” Thomas said. “As black girls and as black women, we experience the world through a different lens because we experience multiple ‘isms’ simultaneously. We might experience racism, sexism and classism. There are a lot of different ‘isms’ that can’t be broken apart because our experience is that they’re happening at the same time.”

“They formed a kind of sisterhood around creating video games."

Thomas is thrilled that the games the girls are designing address social issues. That’s echoed in a class she has taught for the last two fall semesters at Auburn: Game Design for Social Change.

“It’s helping students to see that game design and gaming can be a tool to create social change and to create changes in the way people experience and understand the world,” she said. “In video-game speak, that addictiveness or that playing as hours pass by is called flow. So if you can get somebody to enter a state of flow and at the same time help them to shift their perspective of how they see, respond to or understand the world, that’s amazing to me.”

At the end of each middle school year, the SCAT scholars completed a questionnaire about their learning experience.

“They were describing more and more these situations where they were using the things that they learned in SCAT in other contexts. Things like, ‘I taught my Girl Scout troop how to design video games,’ or, ‘I put together a presentation at my school about how to use Scratch because I already knew how to do it.’ I thought, ‘Oh, wow, it would be cool to see if we could more formally develop that capability in them.’”

The girls led summer computer game sessions for younger kids, formulating their own lesson plans, then de-briefing with one another to analyze more effective approaches to teaching.

Auburn doctoral student Rachelle Minor left a long, boring summer internship as a software tester and joined Thomas. She wanted to learn about non-programming computing fields. She liked working with kids.

It became so much more than an internship.

Now, Minor is gauging how the subjects’ perceptions of themselves have shifted over time, using data from the study, but also drawing from the work of psychologist Albert Bandura’s work in social learning and self-efficacy.

“After initially joining, I had no idea how impactful this program would be, not only for Dr. Thomas but for the SCAT scholars, their parents, the community, student researchers and co-facilitators, and for the expansion of the knowledge base in general, especially in STEM education,” Minor said.

Once strictly consumers of video games, the girls are now designers and educators as well and continue to build on their knowledge and experience.

Thomas said parents consistently tell her, “I had no idea my child could do that.”

Yolanda Wright-Udoh enrolled her daughter, Nubia, in the program.

“Since technology and jobs are ever-changing, it was definitely to her benefit to have been exposed to writing programs,” Wright-Udoh said. “It seems that’s where our future is leading, so she would definitely have an edge in just being exposed to it, even if she doesn’t go into creating video games.”

Nubia, at first reluctant, is now enthusiastic.

“It helped me have a different view on thinking,” Nubia said. “I’d never heard the word algorithm before this program, and all the processes involved with it. I feel pretty awesome about learning it.”

The ongoing goal is to encourage young African-American women to pursue computer science, software engineering and other STEM fields by shattering barriers and assumptions and sending a group of intensely trained and enthusiastic students into a realm where they have always been underrepresented. As they embark on their final years of high school, all the project’s scholars plan to attend college, and most of them intend to go into STEM fields, Thomas said.

“How generalizable will the findings end up being? I don’t know,” Thomas said. “But I will be able to say, very clearly, that this particular young woman was impacted in this way because of something that happened here. Dots will be able to be connected, and that’s something that has been missing in the field.”