Amazon donation boosts innovative computer science education program
$2 million commitment to Carnegie Mellon University’s Computer Science Academy extends opportunities to students in underserved middle and high schools.
In the summer of 2018, David Kosbie visited a school for orphans and other young people in rural Rwanda. Kosbie — an associate professor of computer science at Carnegie Mellon University (CMU) — was there to watch the school work with curriculum from CMU’s Computer Science Academy he helped co-found as a way to reach students who lack access to computer science curriculum.
“The computer-science students would come in early and leave late,” he recalls. “On my last day there, they tried to convince me not to go to the airport to go home.”
What had the students buzzing was the chance to learn advanced computer-science and programming skills — opportunities they’d never had before. That was due to the Computer Science Academy’s online classes and teacher training, which is giving these students a chance to develop 21st century skills.
“It was just so heart-warming,” Kosbie adds. “I’ve sent some of my CMU students to that same school, and for each one it was a life-altering experience. The life stories of these students is mostly tragic, but yet the school (Agahozo-Shalom Youth Village) is one of the most joyous places I have ever been.”
Launched in 2018 by Kosbie and CMU colleague Mark Stehlik, CMU CS Academy is a rigorous online computer-science program that has reached more than 5,600 teachers and mentors and 61,000 students around the world, giving a boost to schools that have limited opportunities to offer students computer science or programming classes. The academy is free to schools that participate, and offers free online and in-person teacher training and support.
Amazon has now announced it will provide $2 million to support CMU CS Academy over the next three years. The donation comes from Amazon Future Engineer, Amazon’s childhood-to-career computer science education program aimed at educating and training students from underserved and underrepresented communities.
The donation comes at a great time, says Kosbie. CMU CS Academy is growing at a rapid clip. “That $2 million will pretty much cover our current operations for three years,” he says. “It will help us with course production, and course hosting, and professional development for teachers. It also will begin to help us expand our efforts to produce CMU CS Academy in different languages.”
Most importantly, he says, it will allow CMU CS Academy to pursue its twin goals of helping students entering the world of computer science, while creating a bigger, more diverse and equitable pipeline of programmers and computer scientists. “Tech companies just can’t find enough talent,” says Kosbie. “And because of the way equity issues play out in schools, a high percentage of the best and brightest have little hope of getting into this pipeline. Amazon, of course, gets that, and is working to change that with Amazon Future Engineer.”
$2 million gift from @amazon Future Engineer will support @CMU_CS_Academy, a free, online computer science curriculum for secondary schools.— CMU School of Computer Science (@SCSatCMU) December 8, 2020
Our goal is to reach 1 million students by 2024. https://t.co/Rf8WTDiqGR@CSEdWeek @CarnegieMellon pic.twitter.com/v11ePPbKmg
CMU CS Academy offers a rigorous introduction to computer science. “While we are designed to reach all students at all levels, we're CMU and we have to uphold high standards,” Kosbie says. “This is not just a gentle taste of programming where when you’re finished you know what programming is but can’t program. This is the real deal.”
Although challenging, classes also are designed to be fun, with a strong emphasis on creativity and graphics. In addition, many of the exercises are designed by CMU students — the logic being that, as recent high-schoolers themselves, they have a good sense of what is relevant to CMU CS Academy’s primary audience.
CMU CS Academy currently offers three core curricula: A basic course for middle schools, school camps, or out-of-school programs; a robust introduction to learning programming through graphics and animations for middle and high schools; and a prep course for students preparing to take advanced placement tests or to take computer science courses in college. It also offers teacher training, 24/7 support, and teacher resources.
Because classes often are taught in schools that lack great technical resources — 60 percent of participating US public schools are Title I schools that receive federal funds — they’re designed to run on rudimentary computer equipment and weaker internet connections.
Looking forward, Kosbie says that in addition to underwriting CMU CS Academy operations, Amazon’s donation will help it focus on developing methods for measuring the actual impact of its classes — whether they boost achievement, what career paths graduates take, how college acceptance rates change. “We want to be able to go to prospective donors and scientifically show them that what we’re doing works,” he says. “So far we’re hearing very promising qualitative results, but we want to back that up with sound quantitative results.”
Ultimately, Kosbie sees CMU CS Academy as a vehicle for giving young people a hand they might not otherwise receive. “We’re doing this because we know this is the right thing to do,” he says. “We have been unbelievably blessed by being skilled and experienced in a discipline that is very rewarding personally but also financially. We feel an obligation to share these opportunities with students who might not otherwise have them.
"We look forward to seeing the impact students with varying backgrounds will have on our world after building these fundamental computer science skills.”
More information about the donation is available in this Carnegie Mellon University School of Computer Science press release. To learn about the different ways you can engage with Amazon's scientific community, visit our Academic Engagements page.