The STEM Illinois Nobel Project is deeply rooted in the historic mission of land-grant institutions like the University of Illinois at Urbana. A key goal of land-grant institutions is to democratize higher education and address the world’s most pressing societal challenges. These challenges include a lack of a diverse STEM workforce and a lack of access to technology that can decrease health disparities. The STEM Illinois Nobel Project seeks to create sustainable STEM programs in multiple neighborhoods through community-based activities in the areas of science, technology, engineering, arts/humanities, math, and medicine. The university and community will leverage their collective assets to design, develop and deploy a comprehensive and holistic ecosystem that fosters future computer scientists of color and other youth from marginalized groups.
The project team has witnessed the students (Nobel Scholars) do absolutely amazing work with CyberGISX, Arduinos, etc. Of course, this endeavor has not been without its difficulties, namely, keeping students as young as 6th graders engaged on a Saturday morning! One of the skills that we were worried about that was exposing the students to GIS software. This software has been traditionally only been used by professionals and research faculty in order to create maps for data science or some other professional endeavor. Needless to say, introducing children to using this technology was a daunting task, but that’s where the saving grace of a Jupyter Notebook came in. In retrospect, utilizing a Jupyter notebook to teach students was one of the best formats that we could have used.
A Jupyter Notebook is an open source coding environment, which makes it an extremely accessible computer science tool. While there are other free coding environments available for use, a Jupyter Notebook has much higher utility in teaching due to its wide range of applications and sectioned blocks of code that can be run in real-time. In a notebook, the user creates code within “cells” which will typically hold all the code related to a desired output. The code is then executed by a computational engine called a “kernel” whenever a cell is run. Results from any particular block of code are then displayed directly below the corresponding cell, and an instructor can simply rinse and repeat this cycle for any number of concepts they would like to convey.
A project based learning model can be easily implemented through the use of a Jupyter Notebook, providing students with meaningful computer science exposure that they can truly view as their own unique experience. For example, during the GIS mapping process in which the Nobel Scholars participated, they were able to follow along and see code executed in real-time. After seeing the execution of the original code, students could then manipulate different variables to get both aesthetic and functionally different outputs. One of the major benefits of Jupyter Notebooks in teaching is the fact that you can pre-make code to be as complex as you want! Anything from the most basic of data science applications to fully functioning machine learning algorithms can be created through the use of Jupyter Notebooks. This allows students to see and visualize themselves as computer scientists! We view establishing a computer science as a key step in creating excitement around majoring in computer science.
With the mission of the Nobel Project being to deliver unprecedented access of STEM resources to marginalized youth, one of our biggest challenges to this is creating material that is digestible for that students could be anywhere between 6th – 12th grade. This is where a Jupyter Notebook has potential to shine! We’ve taken the students through a GIS Jupyter Notebook prepared by researchers at UIUC recently, but this resource was made for older academics not within our target audience.
What if we were to create an engaging, fun, community fueled GIS Jupyter Notebook? What if we filled it with utilities and functions that students would find useful the moment they learn it, and what if they used it to start solving their community’s health problems? In our experience, one of the best ways to motivate a learning spirit in a student is to convey why something is important. One of the best ways to help them learn is to help them to enjoy it. The traditional air of professionalism in the academic world usually doesn’t leave room for the fun or goofy elements of learning that younger students need to stay engaged. Developing a Junior Jupyter Notebook with this in mind could truly help us to further the number of students of color who want to apply their gifts in this field. Society could benefit from their genius, especially as it relates to solving issues around health disparities.
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