Expanding accessibility in computing with Google’s Code Next

By Omnia Saed. Posted

Students across Chicago received Raspberry Pi kits to complete the Raspimon activity

Omnia Saed from Google’s Code Next team shares the story of engineering teacher Nick Anaya and his school’s effort to expand accessibility

Nick Anaya was a full-time engineer when he began volunteering with Robert Lindblom Math and Science Academy’s robotics club in Chicago, USA. The work transformed Anaya’s career trajectory. “Just so you know, Nick walks the talk. He volunteered for seven years at Lindblom before he decided to flip over and become a teacher,” says Matthew Houghteling, a computer science teacher at Lindblom. “For one full school year, he had two full-time jobs.”

Today, Nick supports the roughly 1,400 students who attend the academy as an engineering teacher. He’s the type of teacher that is excited by the work and in many ways, it is a reflection of the students he teaches. “Lindblom is a school where whatever you want to be great at, there are great programs for that,” Nick says. “We have the best kids doing the coolest stuff.”

Google’s Code Next and Raspberry Pi

Last December, Nick, alongside 800 students and staff from across Chicago public schools, participated in Computer Science Education Week (7–13 December). One event in the week was hosted by Google’s Code Next in partnership with the Raspberry Pi Foundation. Code Next is a free computer science education programme in the USA for Black and Latinx high-school students, with a mixture of in-person and online programmes and events. Between 2011 and 2018, Black and Hispanic college students each only made up 3 percent of computer science graduates in the USA — and Code Next is working to change that. The programme provides students with the skills and inspiration needed for long and rewarding careers in computer science. “We aim to provide Black and Latinx students with skills and technical social capital — that web of relationships you can tap into,” said Google Diversity STEM Strategist Shameeka Emanuel.

The virtual event brought together  800 volunteers, teachers, and students

The event tasked participants to create their own Raspimon — a virtual LED-animated monster powered by a Raspberry Pi using Python. It opened the eyes of educators about the possibilities that the Raspberry Pi offers. “The problem we’ve gone through with remote learning is that the kids aren’t able to interact in the same way as they did before,” Nick explains. “But with new platforms, the goal is to bring the students together.”

Students created a virtual monster powered by a Raspberry Pi

Expanding accessibility 

In preparation for the event, Google donated over a thousand Raspberry Pi kits to students across Chicago. As a result, students without access to hardware were able to interact with the curriculum in a way they had never been able to before. For teachers like Nick Anaya, the possibilities that level of access brings are endless: “Lindblom has four different tracks related to computer science and engineering that kids can take. We run a web track, a video game programming track, a networking track, and an engineering track,” says Nick. The goal in a virtual environment is to get students engaged and working with one another. “We had an aha moment when we realised we could incorporate Pis in all four tracks,” says Matthew. “We realised with the event, and the programming in the curriculum, that we could leverage the hardware in a much bigger way than we had thought about before.”

And that’s the lesson here for the Lindblom staff, and for teachers across the country trying to engage with students: we need to make room for innovation, discovery, and curiosity when we’re apart, so that the tradition can continue when students are back together. “The hope is when the kids are back in person ... and someone in the video gaming platform is going to have a kit and they’re using it for a very specific function, they might walk over to a networking kid or robotics student,” explains Nick. “With all of these different types of applications, we end up moving towards an understanding of platforms in a very different and interesting way, which hopefully gets the kids excited.”

As schools work to expand accessibility to resources in a distance learning environment that disproportionately impacts economically disadvantaged students, it’s teachers like Nick who drive the movement forward. “None of this stuff gets fixed. None of it gets any better unless we have that kind of dedication,” says Nick. “We don’t educate a kid in a day; we expose a kid and get them excited in a day, and then we need, you know, we need every Saturday. The one thing I would say, and this is always — we need more people. The hardware’s awesome. We really, really appreciate it. It gives us an opportunity to do something we couldn’t before, but we need more — more engineers, more business-minded entrepreneurs, and so on.”  

For a copy of the activity and curriculum, visit helloworld.cc/raspimon.

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