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Grant will fund computer science curriculum designed for Native American kids

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Northern Arizona University
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Morgan Vigil-Hayes

A grant from the National Science Foundation will support the development of a new computer science curriculum at Killip Elementary School in Flagstaff, designed especially for Native American students. KNAU’s Melissa Sevigny spoke with the project’s lead researcher Morgan Vigil-Hayes about how the curriculum will teach computer science skills by tackling a familiar problem: lack of Internet access.

Why is there is a need for computer science curriculum that’s tailored to Native American students?

Right now, Native American students are some of the least represented in, not only in higher education programs for computer science, but also in computer science related career fields and jobs. A lot of the evidence coming out of education research is showing that there’s a real need for them to be exposed to computer science much earlier than high school.

Tell me about the curriculum you’re developing for Killip School here in Flagstaff.

The curriculum actually came out of a research project that I was involved in…The project was focused actually on collaborating with some of the Pueblos north of Santa Fe, and the focus was bridging digital divide issues…. Many of the maps about Internet connectivity were really inaccurate. They were showing that there were a lot of places that had great LTE mobile broadband coverage, that any person off the streets could tell you, this is not true…. We realized, this is a great opportunity to get people engaged in a civic science project… and I found that kids were really very interested, because this was something that impacted them on a daily basis… they were very connected to the problem, but it also helped give a sense of advocacy: I can collect some data, put some numbers to this problem. Back to the original question, our curriculum is really based on this activity of measuring where is the Internet at, and all the thing that go into understanding why those measurements might look different in different places and at different times. That really launches into a broad array of computer science concepts, so things about computer networking, things about how do you represent data to a computer, how does it even get sent over a network… So there’s a lot of these natural computational thinking and computer science elements in that problem, and that’s where we’re launching this curriculum from.

What got you interested in doing this project?

Living in Flagstaff, you’re right in a community where there’s a lot of people who have Internet access limitations. I was constantly hearing stories from students and families, especially during COVID, about how frustrating it was to not have decent internet. … I felt like it was important to equip students and families, to be able to take that problem into their own hands and have some tools and knowledge to advocate for themselves. And I’m at NAU, I’m a professor of computer science at NAU…. I have so few Native students, that come into my classroom, and so few that are even starting out as freshman in our computer science programs. I want to see more. I want to see more representation, especially since we serve a large body of Native students at our institution, so thinking about ways to address that pipeline long term, and really wanting to see more representation in our field.

Morgan Vigil-Hayes, thank you so much for speaking with me.

Thank you, it was a pleasure.

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Melissa joined KNAU's team in 2015 to report on science, health, and the environment. Her work has appeared nationally on NPR and been featured on Science Friday. She grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where she fell in love with the ecology and geology of the Sonoran desert.