Ecosystems for Computer Science (E4CS): A COVID Year of Growth and Strategic Planning
With funding from Schmidt Futures, CSforALL launched EcoSystemforCS (E4CS) in Fall 2019. A mix of rural and urban communities across the South, East, Midwest, Southwest, and Pacfic Northwest United States, and at different stages in their development became the E4CS Cohort. Maintaining this community with intent was the basis for learning and networking with each other, and other experts. The overwhelming sentiment from all was the invaluable opportunity for new partnerships, hearing from ecosystems faced with similar challenges, learning from experts, and the space to focus on developing a strategic plan together.
“Every time we were together, it was such high quality. My vocabulary has changed.”
“Everyone was so willing to roll up their sleeves, offer solutions, and support each other.”
“It has made me grow as a professional and individual. A year ago, I didn’t feel comfortable helping to lead the charge. Today, I’ve grown in my confidence and feel like I can lead the charge.”
The initiative was designed to spend a year supporting local communities develop strategic plans with the goal of equitable access to computational thinking and computer science education for K-12 students. Through a competitive process, 10 communities were selected and announced at the CSforALL 2019 Summit in Salt Lake City, Utah.
- Central Washington CS Alliance (Wenatchee & Yakima, Washington)
- Central2CS, (Worthington, Ohio)
- CS4ALL Miami powered by Miami EdTech (Miami, Florida)
- CSforCHI (Chicago, Illinois)
- CSforOK (Tulsa, Oklahoma)
- CSforRGV (Mission, Texas)
- CSMN-Southeast (St. Paul, Minnesota)
- Gateway to Computer Science (Richmond, Virginia)
- Girls Code 205 in Birmingham (Birmingham, Alabama)
- New MexiCodes (Santa Fe, New Mexico)
Over the course of the year, which included adjustments in the delivery of technical assistance due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the 10 E4CS planning teams participated in a kick-off in-person meeting, monthly community calls, topical and expert-led webinars, and virtual design-thinking strategic planning workshop series. The culminating event for the E4CS Cohort was the opportunity to pitch their strategic plans to a set of judges that provided each ecosystem team with feedback and advice for next steps.
Elements of an Effective Ecosystem
It became clear to all that developing a sustainable ecosystem for CS requires a dynamic community of individuals, organizations, and resources coalescing to ensure equitable access to high-quality CS education for all students. This initiative reflects the power and the impact of diverse individuals and organizations coming together and developing the building blocks for a community-led model for CS that will strengthen the CS movement and create more sustainable and locally driven change. The components of a systems approach to computer science for all include:
This initiative also speaks to the value of being a part of a national cohort, the critical need of intentionally providing technical assistance, facilitating the learning and sharing of challenges and opportunities, and guiding reflection and problem solving across different communities, in spite of a global pandemic.
The core elements for supporting ecosystems include:
- Access to experts and examples of successes and lessons learned
- Combination of meaningful in-person and virtual learning opportunities including site visits
- Intentional opportunities for reflection and problem-solving across communities
- Tools and resources for leadership development, collaboration, strategic planning, problem solving, policy development, partnership development, landscape mapping, community engagement, communication, fundraising, and increasing equity and access
- Strong facilitation skills that allows for large and small group discussions
- Continuous improvement to identify ongoing needs and improve process
- Opportunities to present and receive feedback within the cohort and from outside experts
- Opportunities to celebrate
Impact of COVID
The pandemic presented many challenges that prevented some ecosystems from building their strategic plans as originally planned but it also became an opportunity to reflect and innovate through a lens of equity.
“COVID made us go to the pit, and gave us an opportunity to refuel, get new tires.”
Knowing that teachers were overwhelmed with remote learning, the design-thinking workshops helped Central Washington CS Alliance realize that their unit of change needed to shift from schools to families and communities to better serve students during the pandemic and beyond. They were able to use data and as well as strategies from the policy workshop to better explain impact efforts and build new partnerships.
For Central 2CS, Worthington OH had to provide online professional development for teachers which resulted in removing geographic barriers of attending, and resulted in expanding access to more teachers. It has helped them realize how rural their region is.
The silver lining of the pandemic for the Gateway to Computer Science, Richmond, Virginia ecosystem was the opportunity to scale virtual learning and training immediately. Adapting the SCRIPT materials became part of supporting local planning. Lessons learned included more teachers being able to participate because training was virtual and could be done for shorter periods of time.
For many, the opportunity to enhance and form new partnerships within communities was a sometimes unexpected and silver lining of the pandemic.
This initiative gave the Central Washington CS Alliance the opportunity to work formally across the rural communities of Wenatchee and Yakima counties to break down silos, collaborate intentionally, identify unique assets to build upon and share, and build new partnerships. Businesses such as Quick Lock, Washington Tree Fruit Company, Macro Plastics, TreeTop, Microsoft, and local health care providers have been more engaged than before.
By learning from other E4CS cohorts, the CS4ALL Miami planning team was able to better understand how to build collaborations within the Miami-Dade County public school system. As a result, CSforALL Miami was ready to provide technical assistance and professional development to teachers when the pandemic hit. The ecosystem effort was put on the back burner but they are now partnering with the school district to develop a research project that will cross reference district and census data, and create a map of the ecosystem that will better inform how best to increase equitable access to CS education.
For Girls Code 205, Birmingham Public Library in Alabama convening the planning team after the pandemic hit was particularly challenging since 80 percent of the library staff was laid off. In the meantime, the core team members made lemonade out of lemons and focused on strengthening connections with both University of Alabama Birmingham (UAB) and with Birmingham Public Schools (BPS). With UAB, they were able to find student leaders to expand the afterschool and summer computing programs through grant funding. With BPS, they created a series of lunch and learn sessions and now have embedded CS education in the BPS virtual classroom.
The opportunity to dedicate time and focus on developing a strategic plan was critical to furthering the development of ecosystems.
For the CSforRGV, Mission TX ecosystem, the opportunity to grow and learn from the others in the E4CS cohort was critical. “Without this initiative, there would be no ecosystem, and organizations would have continued working in silos.” Although still early in the process, enthusiasm for a CS ecosystem in the Rio Grande Valley is growing. Over 40 organizations from a wide variety of sectors with members met bi-weekly to research, build and approve a strategic plan to increase CS education for neurodiverse students.
For CSMN-Southeast, St. Paul Minnesota, engaging the right players at the State Department of Education was critical and created opportunities to not only move forward, but to begin expanding the networks. Being part of the E4CS national cohort helped bring up new topics for discussion at the local level, and infused lessons learned from other communities and meaningfully engaged superintendents. The design-thinking workshops helped the CSMN-Southeast narrow its focus to K-5 students.
For Chicago, a city with many partners and competing interests, the CSforCHI initiative was able to create one inclusive group, and streamline the ecosystem. The design thinking process enabled them to reflect, remember who they are designing for, and design for empathy. It allowed them to move focus away from programming and become a convener, communicator, and advocate to connect systems, organizations, and partners in service to help communities. In particular increasing equity and access to tech tools and Wifi for hard to reach neighborhoods in Chicago.
As a relatively nascent effort, New MexiCodes, Sante Fe, New Mexico ecosystem was inspired by other more mature E4CS ecosystems. The planning team was able to develop a mission, vision, and goals to better communicate the work of the ecosystem. Next steps will focus on better understanding school administrators and their needs, bring in more organizations who are interested in workforce development and understand family engagement, and redefine access to more than just schools but inclusive of multiple locations such as libraries.
To celebrate the strategic planning accomplishments of the E4CS Cohort, we invite you to watch this video.
About the Author: An-Me has been an advocate and educational innovator for young people learning in the out-of-school time space for over 20 years. As a fellow at CSforALL, she has been leading the CSforOST and ecosystems efforts. She has extensive experience building networks and spearheading public-private partnerships and alliances with CEOs, senior government leaders, philanthropists, researchers, technologists, policymakers, and community leaders and practitioners to bring education and technology opportunities particularly for under-represented youth.
An-Me understands that systems change and innovation is the necessity of equity and sustainability. She is a creative problem-solver and a history of leading complex initiatives focused on using data and promising practices, raising public awareness, and leveraging partnerships for community solutions and policy change.