$1.2M NSF Grant Funds Innovative School Partnership

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Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin conducts a teachers’ workshop at Olsen Hall on North Campus.

By Edwin L. Aguirre

Cyberbullying — the deliberate and repeated bullying or harassment through e-mail, texting and social media — is a growing problem especially among adolescents and teens. A recent report indicates that 9 percent of students in grades 6 to 12 had experienced some form of electronic bullying.

According to StopBullying.gov, the abuse can happen 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and kids who are victimized are more likely to use alcohol or drugs, skip school, receive poor grades, have lower self-esteem and experience more health problems.

In response, students in a class at McGlynn Middle School in Medford are trying to address the issue through computer programming, with the help of Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin of the Computer Science Department.

“The students are anxious to develop mobile apps for Android phones that would help fellow teens deal with cyberbullying and its effects,” says McGlynn art teacher Debbie Corleto. “The apps would help them know the warning signs of cyberbullying and how to seek help. The students have also brainstormed ideas on how to deal with other types of bullying such as physical, verbal, social and emotional abuse.”

The project is one of the unique apps being built in the “Middle School Pathways in Computer Science” program headed by Martin, who was recently awarded a three-year $1.2 million grant by the National Science Foundation (NSF) to create a partnership between the university, the Tri-City Technology Education Collaborative and the school districts of Medford and Everett that would bring project-based, socially relevant computing experiences to middle-school students. 

“We want to give all middle-schoolers in the partner districts a taste of what computer science is about,” says Martin, the principal investigator for the NSF award. “It’s really about whetting their appetites to learn more and for them to discover that they have a passion for computer science, which many might not realize. In the bigger picture, we want kids to realize they can use computing to make a positive change in the world.”

Aside from Corleto, other Pathways teacher-partners include Dawn Munro (Whittier School) and Denise Salemi (Keverian School) in Everett and Azita Pourali-Bacon (Andrews Middle School) and Michael Scarola (McGlynn Middle School) in Medford.

Using Teachers as Creative Agents

Martin says the program’s goal is to make computer science a permanent part of the curriculum at the two partner districts. “Pathways’ hands-on activities should continue after the funding is over. We’re collaborating with the teachers to develop their own lesson plans — be it technology, engineering or in Debbie’s case, art. We’re supporting them as creative agents so they can share computer science with their students in ways that make sense for them,” he says.

Pathways will create a 15- to 20-hour computing curriculum that will be integrated with the districts’ existing technology and engineering courses. By the program’s second year, the curriculum is expected to be implemented in other district middle schools, reaching up to 450 students per year. In addition, the Pathways team will conduct intensive 30-hour summer camps for 140 students per program year. Over the program’s three-year period, 1,100 students will participate during the school day, with 360 students also receiving intensive summer instruction. UMass Lowell computer science students and industry tech professionals will also visit Pathways classrooms and work with students.

Developing Apps for Social Good

“The program is a great opportunity to advance technology in the classroom beyond the traditional curriculum,” says Corleto. “For teachers, having the ability to develop apps to help students study or do homework offers limitless possibilities. For students, creating their own apps gives them a feeling of success and helps them realize that computer science is not just for a few boys but for all students, regardless of gender, ethnic background and native language.”

One of Corleto’s classes is a group of students from Haiti, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Dominican Republic, France, India, Japan, Columbia, Italy, Mexico and other countries who are taking their second year of English Language Learning.

“The students’ English skills are still developing and some of their subjects are a bit difficult for them. However, they are at ease on the computer. For the first half of the year I had them work in Scratch, and now they are eager to develop apps,” she says.

Using MIT App Inventor, the students have decided to build apps that would show their American-born classmates what games they play in school in their homeland, the traditional costumes they wear and the different kinds of food they prepare in their native countries.

“What better way is there to get the message across concerning bullying or cultural differences than in a student-created app?” asks Corleto. 

“We have a lot of work ahead and hopefully, the students will be intrigued enough to pursue computer science in high school and college and, eventually, in their professional career,” she adds.

For more information, go to the Pathways program website