Argonne Scientists Inspire the Next Generation of Computational Thinkers

The City of Chicago and the US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Argonne National Laboratory (CSA CSM) came together this winter for a “My Brother’s Keeper” event, a one-day hands-on workshop connecting the dots between computational thinking and science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) careers for 8th grade students attending the Laura S. Ward STEM School.

“My Brother’s Keeper” is a White House commitment to shrink the advancement gap faced by many young men of color by calling on the private and public sectors to identify evidence-based approaches and provide equal access to those students most underrepresented in STEM fields.

Kyle Westbrook, the executive director of the City of Chicago’s Education Policy Office, leads the initiative’s local effort by connecting education, not-for-profit, faith-based and community-based efforts to support improved life outcomes for youth, with a particular emphasis on young men of color. “Our analysis of major sectors of job growth in the Chicago area show that an overwhelming number of these opportunities will be STEM related,” says Westbrook. “Knowing that, it comes down to how the city and our partners are preparing students to work collaboratively in a technology-infused environment that is indicative of the 21st century workforce.”

Argonne staff were on hand to guide more than 40 students through a STEM-filled day of computational thinking. “Helping these kids make the connection between computational thinking and their everyday lives can help them get over the feeling that computer science and computational thinking are abstract concepts,” says Argonne computational scientist Jini Ramprakash. “This connection makes computational thinking much simpler and more relatable like problem solving, which they do every day—sometimes without even knowing they do.”

A way of using math to understand and solve problems, computational thinking allows researchers to do everything from creating models and simulations visualizing massive amounts of data, to cataloging thousands of scientific properties to make batteries more efficient and less expensive.

Visiting students used these same basic methods to program robots, games and motorized vehicles, therein learning the structure of specific commands and how they cause certain actions that can later be used to predict patterns, create visualizations or provide other useful information.

“Working in the STEM/research field gives one the chance to be creative and continue to grow mentally and intellectually,” says Harold Gaines, an Argonne engineering specialist and graduate of Olive-Harvey Junior College in Chicago. Forty years ago he was introduced to Argonne by a college counselor and today he works in the field of electronics and instrumentation in the Biosciences Division. “My suggestion to the students is to start considering what you enjoy or what you are curious about as early in your school career as possible.”

Illinois Math and Science Academy senior Tavis Reed delivered a keynote to students on his research and path to STEM. Reed recently won a gold medal in the annual National Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) competition for his Argonne-aided research on cellulosic ethanol. Now, with a provisional patent and goals to scale up his research, Reed admits that when he started thinking about his future he wasn’t sure whether STEM was the right path for him.

“I was always interested in science but I didn’t think that I would want to do it because I wasn’t sure how hard or rewarding it would be,” says Reed. “But I found that I really love chemistry and biology, and meeting scientists at Argonne who are just as excited about what they do just rubs off on you.”

Exposure is one thing, but all in attendance agreed that for any program to be effective, it would have to consist of a sustained effort on the part of the parents, teachers and community. Suzette Smith Boyd, a 7th and 8th grade teacher at Laura S. Ward STEM School, says that teachers and the community play a vital role in encouraging students to stay in school and be competitive enough to succeed on a national stage. “Being here at Argonne helps these children understand that there is a whole different life outside of their community,” says Boyd. “They’ve already got the interest in science and mathematics; they just need programs like ‘My Brother’s Keeper’ to help provide access and opportunities to ensure that they stay focused and on track.”