Last Spring, a DFA Duke team won $7,500 to bring their idea to reality. With this support, the summer of 2016 brought together nine programmers in six different time zones to collaborate and bring to life their computer science teaching platform, CodeStory.

“CodeStory is an interactive learning platform to teach middle school students how to code while also inspiring them to pursue a programming career in the future,” said team lead Austin Gartside, ‘18 Computer Science. CodeStory explains a process and then invites students to write their own code to solve the problem. In addition, CodeStory will include videos of professional programmers so students can imagine themselves working in computer science.

CodeStory will be an online platform accessible to anyone with a computer. The team is looking to provide CodeStory for free to all individuals who want to use it, but would charge a small subscription fee for schools to track progress.

13875014_10208876225576029_806080454_n

In Fall 2015, the team set out to tackle the digital divide, which they defined as the gap in access to technology for children. To better understand what areas of this large problem they could impact, the team dove into user research. The team did many interviews and found success in making sure interviews were conversational instead of just question and answer sessions.

During this research, they realized that schools actually get a lot of funding for technology, however, a majority of the money is spent on hardware. Most schools in Durham, North Carolina, have a close to a one-to-one ratio of students to computers.

“A lot of North Carolina schools have the technology, there’s just nothing to inspire the children to use it. You have these young kids with access to computers, but there’s no one to teach them and nothing exciting enough for them to learn from,” said Gartside.

They found that schools with less funding lack quality computer science education. “There were qualified people to teach things beyond powerpoint,” said team lead Rob Mortorano ‘18 Computer Science. “…but there was no curriculum for computer science, which is one of the fastest growing areas.”

This puts children from lower socioeconomic backgrounds at a huge disadvantage for getting a job in computer science – and by 2020, there’s expected to be over a million more computer science jobs than there are science graduates to fill them. Knowing this, the team set out to teach basic computer science skills without the need of a qualified teacher and inspire children to consider careers in computer science. “You’d never dream of being a software engineer when you grow up, and we want people to aspire to it,” said Mortorano.

After the team narrowed their focus, they brainstormed for months. Applying for Changeworks, a Duke social entrepreneurship competition that seeks undergraduate ideas to spark social change, motivated the team to dive into the details of their ideas and figure out what features made the most sense. Making this video forced them to turn ideas on Post-it notes into a solution that could create real impact.

“Because of Changeworks, we had to buckle down and make decisions. That propelled us forward,” said Gartside.

CodeStory was one of five teams selected to pitch to a live audience and a panel of judges. They ended up winning the competition, earning $7,500 for implementation of their idea.

Winning Changeworks validated the team’s idea and gave them the momentum to push on to building their platform. “It was a make or break moment,” said Mortorano. “Someone else saw potential in (our idea).”

Most of the money will likely be spent on server costs. In the meantime, a team of Duke developers is working to build a platform that CodeStory can test and eventually bring to market.

screen-shot-2016-08-23-at-2-35-41-pm
An example of a challenge presented in CodeStory

While the development team is working on coding the base of the platform, Gartside is putting together a draft of the curriculum. He has an understanding of common problems people have when learning to code from working as a Teaching Assistant in introductory computer science courses for two years. “It’s really given me an idea of how I can teach people who don’t understand coding by coming up with examples that make sense to them,” he said.

The team’s goal is to test their first working prototype within 10 months and have a second iteration available online within 14 months.

Congrats to the DFA Duke CodeStory team! Learn more about other social innovation initiatives at Duke at http://dukesocent.com/.