Nobel Project Seeks to Pique Marginalized Students’ Interest in Computer Science

“Really, one of the goals of the Nobel Project is to provide young people with unprecedented access to the University of Illinois—the land grant mission...If our youth are to become computer scientists, to become the next Nobel Laureate, to become sociologists—whatever it is that their gifts and talents are urging them to be—we can support them in that effort.” — Ruby Mendenhall

Nobel Project participant Kyanna Hobbs chats on Zoom
Nobel Project participant Kyanna Hobbs chats on Zoom.

November 9, 2020

According to statistics, very few faculty and industry professionals in Computer Science (CS) are from marginalized populations. For instance, only around 2% of employees in CS are Black; plus, percentages from marginalized groups are also low in medicine and other STEM fields. Seeking to address this issue is STEM Illinois’ Nobel Project, headed up by Dr. Ruby Mendenhall, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Democratization of Health Innovation at the Carle Illinois College of Medicine (CI MED), and an Associate Professor in African-American Studies in the Department of Sociology. The Project’s goals over the next two years are to hold workshops and other activities designed to get young people from marginalized groups interested in CS.

Working closely with Mendenhall is Dr. Jennie Hsu-Lumetta, who is certified in internal medicine, obesity medicine, and lifestyle medicine at Carle Foundation Hospital. She has a joint appointment with CI MED and the Division of Nutritional Sciences. Key team members include Lisa Goodpaster (CI MED Associate Director of Project Management), Molly Galloway (Education doctoral student), Carileigh Jones (Sociology doctoral student), Lea Hill (stack developer in Python, React, and C#), Tracy Dace (CI MED), Brian Dolinar (CI MED), and Karen Simms (Founding Director of Trauma and Resiliency Initiative, Inc.).

Ruby Mendenhall interacts with Nobel Project participants.
Ruby Mendenhall interacts with Nobel Project participants.

The goal of the Nobel Project is to serve as both a Dream Incubator as well as a Pathway Program to college for various groups, especially marginalized “at-promise” students (a new, more positive label the project uses for “at-risk” students). According to Mendenhall, one of the overarching goals of Nobel Project is this: “to provide young people with unprecedented access to the University of Illinois, at Urbana-Champaign—the land grant mission.” She explains that it’s actually to ensure that both the children and their families “can achieve their dreams.” Whether they hope to become a computer scientist, the next Nobel Laureate in a certain field, or to become a sociologist, “Whatever it is that their gift and talent is urging them to be, we can support them in that effort.”

The project is targeting three geographic areas: Chicago (urban), Pembroke (rural), and Urbana-Champaign (micro urban), hoping to get from 50–100 kids involved. Staff got the word out about the project via a variety of means: community organizations, social media, emails to faculty, a Chicago radio show, on the STEM Illinois webcast, at the Daily Bread Soup Kitchen, and even at a boxing program in Chicago. Plus, Mendenhall also passed out flyers on the street and at a gas station in Pembroke, Illinois.

Image taken from video,
Image taken from video, "What Is Epidemiology" video that Diana Grigsby-Toussaint presented to students on November 7th. (Video courtesy of

The main components of the Nobel Project are Saturday Zoom workshops addressing a variety of topics related to computer science, ranging from introductory CS training, through CS in the arts, medicine, even space, along with what they hope becomes long-term mentoring provided by CS-savvy folks. The project is funded via an NSF (National Science Foundation) EAGER (EArly-concept Grants for Exploratory Research) grant to the STEM Illinois program.

So just what is a Dream Incubator? The idea behind that notion is that the project will help to align students’ dreams and genius with computer science careers or applications in other fields. According to Mendenhall, “We wanted the Nobel Project to be grounded in who students are, their gifts, their passions.” The idea is to encourage students to follow their dreams. “'So what is it that you do all the time? What is it that you're striving to do in your life?'...We hope to show them, 'This is how computer science fits into that!'”

Project creators are also hoping it can serve as a pipeline to CS, Medicine, or other STEM fields via mentoring, networking, and establishing a relationship with the university. In fact, the Project is partnering with CI MED as a pathway program and with MCB (the School of Molecular and Cellular Biology), also via a pathway program. Mendenhall considers the project to be at the intersection of some very elite spaces: computer science, medicine, engineering, and STEM.

The 1st cohort is around 50+ students (it's still growing as more kids sign up); their ages range from middle school through high school. Those who have signed up to participate will be actively engaged in the program for one year (and as an incentive, be paid $100 quarterly based on workshop attendance). The idea is to keep them on target through high school, college, and then into a CS, medicine, or STEM career. To help accomplish this, another integral component of the project is mentors in various CS fields, as well as fields that apply CS.

Chris Walker
Chris Walker, one of the Nobel Project's participants.

Regarding the Nobel pathway program, Lisa Goodpaster claims the project is about giving participants opportunities to be exposed to different CS-related things at a young age. “It starts young,” she insists, adding that project leaders hope to “capture their interest and expose them to these things and let them know that they're capable.” And after Nobel, they envision that the networking—the mentoring relationships they’ve established—will continue. “What we hope is that they have mentors and people that can help them and follow them, not just now, not just for a one-time workshop or series of workshops, but through their time up through college, maybe to medical school, grad school—whatever their passions are.”

Mendenhall is also hopeful that mentors will “tell their stories—because that's very powerful—about when they were children. What were their gifts and dreams?” She also hopes they will share, “What were some challenges that they encountered and how did they get over those challenges?”

Integral to the project, of course, are Zoom workshops about CS and how other fields use CS. For example, the first area being addressed during the first three weekly sessions beginning October 31st is using GIS (Geographic Information Systems) for Geo Mapping. With mentoring from an urban planner and epidemiologist (Diana Grigsby-Toussaint) and support from the Geospatial Software Institute (Shaowen Wang and Donna Cox), the youth are using GIS to map communities vulnerable to COVID-19. A major activity connected with this topic is a Make-A-Thon, where winners, in addition to monetary prizes, will have their designs featured at the Illinois Virtual GIS Day to be held on November 18, 2020.

One GIS/COVID-19-related resource Grigsby-Toussaint presented to students: the Chicago COVID-19 Dashboard, which presents various pendemic-related data, such as the city-wide positivity rate.
One GIS/COVID-19-related resource Grigsby-Toussaint presented to students: the Chicago COVID-19 Dashboard, which presents various pandemic-related data, such as the city-wide positivity rate.

Besides Geo Mapping, the project will address a variety of CS-related topics. For example, Introduction to Foundations of CS will expose participants to programming (coding & languages), mathematics, data analysis, data visualizations, etc. Another topic to be tackled during several sessions is Entrepreneurship and Innovation related to CS. Partnering with Morehouse College of Medicine, sessions about Community Health Workers will address COVID-19 contact tracing. Oral Histories and Digital Archives will redefine legacy wealth as not just financial wealth passed down from one generation to the next, but the wealth of family histories and cultural roots. Addressing CS’ impact on music, art, and science, Digital Renaissance will include a tribute to Wakanda & Chadwick Boseman (from Marvel’s Black Panther movie.) During Forage in Space, youth will work with Keith Jacobs from Extension Illinois to explore CS in Aerospace Engineering, plus pilot a micro-python curriculum and send a satellite into space. FarmBot Program – Food Access Academy sessions will train youth to use Python to program robots to plant and water seeds on farms and in community gardens.

One final emphasis of the Nobel Project is dissemination. The participants themselves will have an opportunity to share about their experiences via TEDx Talks. Plus, project leadership hope to share about the program structure and outcomes via a documentary, a digital book, and an anthology. It is hoped that through disseminating the process, others seeking to do similar projects might find the materials useful. The dissemination process also seeks to position the youth as experts and knowledge producers.

Capgemini Cyber Security Engineer Daryl Thompson shares about what engineering is during his October 31st Zoom presentation.
Capgemini Cyber Security Engineer Daryl Thompson shares about what engineering is during his October 31st Zoom presentation.

The kickoff event for the Nobel Project on Saturday, October 31st from 11:00 am–1:00 pm, introduced the students to the program itself. After an introduction to STEM IL and the Nobel Project, introductions of staff and students, and examples of possible Make-a-Thon projects, two experts were on hand to chat with the students about their careers and how they ended up in the field they're in. For instance, Capgemini Cyber Security Engineer Daryl Thompson shared the difference between computer science and computer engineering, how he became an engineer, and some sage pieces of advice.

Thompson began by defining computer science, calling it creating computer programs that solve problems or achieve a purpose: games, phone apps, or web pages. He defined computer engineering as coming up with ways to deliver solutions, such as via computer systems that stream data around the world.

After sharing about his love for something the kids could probably identify with—comic books—Thompson told them how he ended up in Computer Science. After he graduated from high school, a cousin helped him get an internship at a computer company in Detroit, where he discovered that he liked solving problems. Realizing CS was something he could make money at, he decided to major in it in college.

Sophia Vela's Green Spaces of Chicago study which she did using GIS.

As part of his talk, Thompson gave participants a couple of pieces of advice based on his own experiences. One was to learn how to work in groups. For example, one challenge he encountered in college was that there were only a few African Americans in the program, so they started working together. “Whatever you’re going to do,” he advised, “learn to work in a group,” then shared one benefit of groups—you get practice at both being a leader and learning to follow. Thompson’s second piece of advice was this: learn how to communicate: “I have to be able to communicate in different dimensions all the time,” he said, reporting that he communicated verbally, through writing, via symbols, by drawing pictures, even through social media.

Finally, he advised that students learn to ask questions. For instance, as an engineer, he sometimes encounters problems he doesn’t have enough info to solve, so he’s learned how to ask questions, listen to answers, then ask follow-up questions. His final pithy piece of advice? “Ask, ask, ask, constantly ask questions!”

Also sharing during the Nobel Project kickoff and celebrating Día de Los Muertos (Day of the Dead) was Sophia Vela, who majored in environmental science as an undergrad and is currently a graduate student studying geography and GIS at Chicago State University. A scientist in geography, a field many might consider to be far removed from using CS, she claims it’s central to her discipline. “GIS is really important to monitor the changes in our environment,” she admits. As an example, she presented to the young participants her study on Green Spaces in Chicago, which she accomplished using GIS. She explains why her project is important.

“When I set out to map greenspaces in Chicago,” she explains, “I began to wonder where the greenspaces are located and if they favored an area of the city. Understanding where our greenspace is located is important when studying and addressing urban environmental concerns and the health and wellness of Chicago residents. “

Sophia Vela, a Chicago State University Geography graduate student. with Zamboni, the Eastern Screech Owl.
Sophia Vela, a Chicago State University Geography graduate student. with Zamboni, the Eastern Screech Owl.

Vela shares how GIS is used in her field. “GIS plays a large role in the work and planning in land management and conservation,” she reports. “It is important to have accurate maps when making restoration proposals and important in collecting and tracking the progress of restoration projects.”

During her presentation, Vela connected via Zoom from the Little Red Schoolhouse Nature Center—one of six nature centers within Cook County's Forest Preserve District. Employed there as a naturalist, her job involves working with animals and educating the public about native ecology and the importance of land conservation. Near the end of her talk, Vela introduced students to a friend—Zamboni the Eastern Screech Owl, adding that in wildlife conservation, mapping “helps keep up-to-date and accurate information about species populations and migration patterns.” 

Vela explains why the Nobel Project was important to her: “Because the project's efforts work toward bridging the gaps in our formal education system focusing on serving students of minority and low-income backgrounds that are most at risk of having the education system fail them. The Nobel Project offers an opportunity to introduce students to STEM science with the hopes to inspire students.” 

Marquis Sewell
Above: Marquis Sewell chats via Zoom with the Nobel Project students about using his drone for mapping. Below: He describes his drone to students.
Marquis Sewell

Sharing with the students during the November 8th session was Marquis Sewell, who showed students video captured by his drone of a Walmart on the south side of Chicago that remains closed after the 2020 social protests. Also speaking was Diana Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Associate Professor of Epidemiology and of Behavioral and Social Sciences in the Brown University’s School of Public Health. Her presentation, How to Stop the Spread of COVID dealt with a number of GIS-based resources useful in epidemiology: the distribution, patterns and determinants of health and disease conditions in defined populations.

For instance, the Chicago COVID Dashboard presents the city-wide COVID-19 positivity rate (the percentage of tests that come back positive). Grigsby-Toussaint also presented a dashboard published by John's Hopkins University (see the bottom of the page) showing the global spread of the Coronavirus. An interactive Social Distancing Scoreboard measures the effectiveness of social distancing initiatives by location. How’d the Nobel Projects target areas do? Chicago (Cook County) got a grade of D-, as did Champaign (Champaign County), while Pembroke (Kankakee County) received an F. The Nobel Project will ask students to think about how to improve those grades in their community as part of the make-a-thon. Another resource Grigsby-Toussaint discussed included a website that reveals free COVID 19 test sites in San Diego, CA.

One germane resource Grigsby-Toussaint showed students was a New York Times article based on analysis of smartphone location data: Location Data Says It All: Staying at Home During Coronavirus Is a Luxury. It was about a woman who couldn’t stay home because her job was caring for clients with health issues. The article stated that lower-income workers’ jobs often require greater exposure to the public, compared to higher income workers who are able to stay home and limit their exposure to the virus. This is one reason why different racial and ethnic groups, such as African Americans, might have a higher COVID positivity rate (see the chart below).

Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Brown University Associate Professor of Epidemiology. (Image courtesy of Diana Grigsby-Toussaint.)
Diana Grigsby-Toussaint, Brown University Associate Professor of Epidemiology. (Image courtesy of Diana Grigsby-Toussaint.)

On a final note, according to Mendenhall, "This really is comprehensive STEM project that seeks to embed computer science into students' culture, so it takes a village to pull it off." She wouild like to express her thanks to the many "villagers" who helped make the program possible, including the following partners: Barbara Gillespie (Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technical and Scientific Olympic/ACT-SO), Margarita Teran-Garcia (Division of Nutritional Sciences and Extension Hispanic Health Programs), Keith obs (4-H and STEM, Extension), Katina Wilcher (CommUniversity),Tanya Parker (Unity in Action Magazine), Joe Bradley (Bioengineering and College of Business), LaTonya Webb (Business Community Economic Development), La`Keisha Sewell (CI MED), Theresa Robinson (Girls Like Me), Pamela Jolly (Torch Enterprises Inc.), Jifunza Wright-Carter (Black Oaks Center, Pembroke), Brenda Miles (Pembroke Township Supervisor), Johari Cole (Pembroke Farmers Cooperative and Pembroke Farming Family), Siebel Center for Design (Rachel Switzky, Kendra Wieneke, Amada Henderson, Lucas O’Bryan and Elisabeth Braits), and Simon Fraser University in Canada (Kelly Nolan, Fred Popowhich, Lydia Odilinye and Fatou Sarr).

Story by Elizabeth Innes, Communications Specialist, I-STEM Education Initiative. Photos by Elizabeth Innes unless otherwise noted.

For more related stories, see: Carle Illinois College of Medicine, Underserved Students, 2020

For an additional I-STEM articles about Carle Illinois College of Medicine, see:

One slide Grigsby-Toussaint shared wiht participants about the disproportionately higher mortality rate for Black Americans than for other ethnicities.
One slide Grigsby-Toussaint shared with participants showed the disproportionately higher mortality rate for Black Americans than for other ethnicities. (Image courtesy of Grigsby-Toussaint.)


One GIS-based COVID-19 resource Diana Grigsby-Toussaint shared with students during her presentation: Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard. (Screen shot courtesy of Johns Hopkins website.)

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