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Duke students develop after-school program to bring computer science to low-income middle schoolers

Two students have created an after-school program at a nearby middle school intended to broaden participation in computer science. Now, they are trying to expand the curriculum. 

Sophomore Carter Zenke and senior Tanner Johnson took on their ambitious goal to teach middle-schoolers computer science skills by designing Mobile Citizens. David Malone, professor of the practice of education, described the program as "one of the most thoughtful, student-created community engagement projects I have worked with over the past 25 years." 

Mobile Citizens is an after-school extended learning apprenticeship where students develop their own mobile app. The program is run through Citizen Schools—a nonprofit focused on improving education enrichment outside the classroom for low-income students. The partnership allows the program to be sustainable and continue to exist after Johnson and Zenke leave, which they noted was important to them.

Zenke said the goal of Mobile Citizens is to bring quality computer science education to places that often lack access to it. 

“We want to teach in a way that’s not targeted for future software developers," Johnson said. "We want all of our students to leave class thinking, 'Computer science is for me and applicable to my life regardless of what I want to do.'"

Mobile Citizens launched in September at Sherwood Githens Middle School, with 16 students. The students work in groups of two to four to create their app, and a near-peer mentor from Duke or Durham Academy is assigned to a group as a facilitator. They meet once a week, for 90 minutes, and the program lasts ten weeks and culminates in a WOW! event, where students showcase their work to their family and community. 

Zenke and Johnson's collaboration

The partnership between Zenke and Johnson began through long-winded email conversations over winter break, Johnson said. Johnson knew he enjoyed computer science and wanted to be a socially accountable person, so he gained an interest in computer science education. Multiple friends mentioned Zenke’s name as a potential research partner, so Johnson emailed him.

Zenke, like Johnson, did not come to Duke interested in education but found the social justice aspect of computer science appealing. 

“I was into [computer science] more for the chance to teach people how great computer science is and how you can use it for anything you want,” Zenke said. 

At first, both students had many divergent ideas about possible projects that were too broad, Johnson explained. So, they started to research the subject of computer science education and representation.

“It is pretty well-known that computer science is the worst field in terms of representation across many different identity factors, especially gender and race, in all of [science, technology, engineering and mathematics'” Johnson said. “We noticed it was similar in our classrooms, and we started wondering—what is a good approach in getting people more excited about computer science, particularly those underrepresented in the classroom and in Durham?”

The students said they researched programs that already exist in the community and looked to fill a gap in the type of computer science programs available. 

The point of Mobile Citizens

Mobile Citizens works toward three main goals: access to quality computer science education, increasing self-efficacy through service-learning and student-centered learning. The program serves students in Title I schools from low-income neighborhoods, who are often underrepresented and not targeted for quality computer science education. 

Johnson explained that apps are an effective method for teaching computer science because they involve active learning. Additionally, they are tangible products that can be implemented and are relevant to kids' lives.

He also said that, currently, computer science education revolves around developing software. Therefore, Mobile Citizens is designed to show students that learning computer science is useful and applicable in many aspects of their lives. 

During the program, the students decide on the type of app they wish to create and use the online programming environment, App Lab from, to develop their application. Johnson said the near-peer mentors are simply guides, while the students are the drivers of the course.

“We want to make it more personal, ask the students what they're interested in, and craft learning around their interests,” Johnson said. 

The Types of Apps Students Are Making

The kids that Zenke works with are creating an app called Chef-tastic, which is focused on helping community members make healthy choices through providing healthy recipes, tips on how to prepare food and related quizzes. They are hoping the app will provide a list of the best grocery stores with the healthiest food in the area. 

Johnson’s team is also developing an app called Survivalists, which provides information on which plants in the woods are edible or poisonous, as well as fun facts about local plants and animals.

Johnson explained that through service-learning, students can become more confident in themselves and in their abilities. 

“I think we’re trying to reinforce the idea that caring about your community and doing work in your community feels good, and hopefully that is a sustained thing,” Johnson said.


Johnson and Zenke said they faced many hurdles while developing Mobile Citizens. For example, Zenke said that they were initially planning on implementing the program at Lowe’s Grove Middle School, but they had to switch schools due to enrollment issues. They also had logistical problems—such as finding transportation—and difficulty constructing the curriculum before knowing what to expect, Zenke explained.

They emphasized that they were not able to create Mobile Citizens alone. They relied on help from an advisory board, faculty mentors—including Jeff Forbes, professor of the practice of computer science—and friends.


Before each class, the students take a survey about how they view their abilities and confidence in computer science. At the beginning of the program, about 25 percent of students said they did not agree that they have the ability to learn computer science, Zenke said. Yet now, 100 percent of the students agree with the statement. 

Research also shows that a majority of the students now believe that they can make a significant contribution to their community through computer science concepts. 

Zenke and Johnson hope to expand Mobile Citizens to more middle schools in the Durham area and involve more mentors from Duke. They are also working to create a model to make their program implementable across the nation.

“They have so many bright ideas, and if you just ask them questions about what they’re interested in and listen, they come up with some fascinating stuff and are willing to put the work in and create an app,” Johnson said. “I think we oftentimes underestimate kids and their ability to enact change, so it’s really cool to see them take the reins and go do it.”


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