The New MVPS

Turning athletes into computer scientists

Marcelo Worsley wants to close the troubling diversity gap in computer science. His approach? Stop asking kids if they want to be computer scientists. Instead, see if they have dreams of becoming athletes. Or artists. Inventors or entrepreneurs. Then show them how using data and computer science can help them get better at doing what they love.

While the job market for computer scientists is projected to grow much faster than for other occupations over the next decade, Black adults are less likely to earn degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields, according to a report by the Pew Research Center. Worsley’s ambitious Black Kids Predict initiative, which focuses on Black children but reaches those of all backgrounds, is an effort to introduce middle and high school students to scientific disciplines through a back door: the world of sports.

“We want Black kids to use data as a creative superpower,” says Worsley, associate professor of learning sciences at SESP and of computer science at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “Data isn’t a single career path. It’s a literacy.”

At all levels, Black students are less likely to have access to a computer science class at school. Despite efforts to expand the pipeline, just 3.5 percent of Black US college students earned bachelor’s degrees in computer science in 2022, down from 3.8 percent in 2013, according to the Computing Research Association.

Worsley created Black Kids Predict as a partnership with the City of Evanston, local schools, SESP colleagues, and several professional sports teams. Its 6-to-10-week curriculum for middle and high school students can be used in or outside the class- room and includes research-based activities, fieldtrips, and special events. Led by college-aged students from diverse backgrounds, the program emphasizes the practical uses of a STEM education and learning to see data differently.

“Only 6 percent of computer science students are interested in sports,” Worsley says. “So why not get athletes interested in computer science?”

So far, more than 500 students have completed the curriculum, which is broken up into modules, through Evanston public schools, the Chicago Park District, Boys and Girls Club programming, and smaller organizations like Camp Kuumba, a summer program designed to give Black Evanston students equitable opportunities.

More than 1,500 additional children have participated in Black Kids Predict via pop-up sessions in Chicago and Evanston parks and community centers and basketball tournaments, during which children can test out sensor- enabled sports equipment while they’re not watching or playing.

Black Kids Predict can also be adapted to different environments and used with younger students. The sports wearables curriculum model introduces students to popular technology athletes can wear, such as activity trackers and smart- watches that monitor recovery, sleep, and training.

The course was successfully piloted at an Evanston elementary school and later incorporated into the district’s computer science curriculum for those grade levels.

Fifth graders created warm-up exercise programs in the Scratch coding language, learned about sensors (both the human body’s senses and electronic devices) and tiny computer processors, and brainstormed future uses for sensor-enabled sports equipment, says Mindy Perry, a coding teacher and librarian at Dawes Elementary School.

“The students coded a micro:bit [pocket-sized computer] to track how many steps and laps they were doing while running the mile,” Perry says. “They loved understanding how wearables relate to their everyday lives and how they enhance sports performance.”

A 2022 report by the Aspen Institute estimates 70 percent of young people participate in organized sports; another report by the Afterschool Alliance says fewer than 20 percent take part in out-of- school experiences related to STEM fields.

Worsley’s early research suggests that reaching students who are already doing something they love, and emphasizing how data and tech can help sports performance, can better engage them and spur interest in STEM.

A 2020 study in Computer Science Education examined a summer camp Worsley’s lab designed for second through sixth graders that integrated sports with technology. After five days, students demonstrated “significant changes” in how they connected technology with athletic performance. Those who weren’t interested in sports were still “highly engaged in the experience,” according to the study, coauthored by doctoral students Stephanie Jones and JaCoya Jackson.

“Particularly within the Black community, there can be tension between athletics and academics,” Worsley says. “We want students to recognize how athletics can contribute to their learning about data science and technology and how computer science can enhance their athletic performance.”

Born in Brazil, Worsley attended elementary school in Belgium and high school in Michigan, where he was a state-ranked sprinter for the track team but also loved soccer and other sports. One thing he wasn’t wild about? His high school computer science classes, in part because they focused on learning a programming language.

That changed at Stanford University, where he ran track and studied chemical engineering and Portuguese. While teaching an elective class at a charter high school in Redwood City, California, about the engineering of entrepreneurship, he began exploring how to create an online tutoring platform to pair students from East Palo Alto with Stanford students for help in any subject.

Worsley also participated in the National Society of Black Engineers Pre- College Initiative Program, working on activities inspired by the popular MTV show Pimp My Ride. “Ours was P.I.M.P.—Program In Math and Physics—My Golf Cart, where youth learned about engineering by working on an old golf cart,” he says.

 After graduation, he worked for several years at Accenture Technology Labs. Then, for his doctorate in learning sciences, Worsley returned to Stanford. There he was advised by SESP alumnus Paulo Blikstein (PhD09), now associate professor of communications, media, and learning technologies design at Columbia University. During the second year of Worsley’s doctoral program, he was admitted to the master’s program in computer science.

“Many of those projects during the master’s program were geared toward getting youth excited about engineering through hands-on projects,” Worsley says, like “creating radio-controlled cars, doing physics demos with Nobel Prize–winning physicists, and adding custom technology to golf carts.”

Worsley’s effectiveness with youth stems from insights that come from his involvement with the community as a parent, coach, and volunteer, says colleague Nichole Pinkard, who studies educational ecosystems and is also a volunteer coach for Black Kids Predict. His familiarity with where the children of Evanston learn and play sparked several unique events, including a workshop for the girls’ basketball team Pinkard coaches that began with an activity to design wearables and ended with a hoop-shooting improvement session in the gym.

“Making it possible for young people to try STEM activities in familiar spaces with friends lowers the barriers to engagement,” says Pinkard, the Alice Hamilton Professor of Learning Sciences at SESP.

Meeting professionals in the field—like athletes and people working in tech—is another key part of the curriculum. Last August, 40 Black boys went to a Chicago Bears training camp for a firsthand look at the tech the pros use. Another group attended an Indiana Pacers basketball camp, where they played with Home Court, a computer-vision technology platform that tracks shooting progress and provides a shooting heat map.

Worsley also brought inventor and former basketball player Kayode Vann to speak to his Northwestern class on sports technology and learning. Vann created the SmartShotInventor basketball training aid; while in Evanston, he also held shooting workshops at Haven Middle School and Evanston Township High School and talked to students about his career.

“Many of these students came into this program thinking computer science was not for them, but that shifts after they go through some of our activities,” Worsley says. “When they get to the point where they’re thinking, ‘Yeah, designing sports technology is something I would actually be interested in doing’—that’s when I really get hopeful.”