Empowering communities through computer science

September 19, 2018 | By Monika Wnuk

Looking around her lab of computer scientists and designers, Emily Harburg couldn’t help but notice how unexceptional, even natural, it seemed – working in a tech environment with equal numbers of women and men. Yet around the country, only about 25 percent of tech positions are filled by women.

During her time as a doctoral student in Northwestern’s technology and social behavior program, Harburg studied how to design more inclusive educational technologies. She conducted her research in The Delta Lab, an interdisciplinary design research lab founded by engineering and communications professor Liz Gerber and SESP professor Matt Easterday in 2012. Since then, Gerber and Easterday have been joined by computer science and learning sciences professor Eleanor O’Rourke and computer science professor Haoqi Zhang. Within The Delta Lab, faculty, graduate and undergraduate students all work to understand and design new systems in social and crowd computing, computer-supported cooperative work, educational technology, civics, and more.

Inspired by the gender parity in The Delta Lab’s leadership team, Harburg envisioned a space where girls could be empowered to discover computer science and helped to excel. To make that vision a reality, she turned to four female students in her lab to help design curriculum, secure laptops and recruit girls. The result of their collective efforts: a startup called “Brave Initiatives,” which runs a growing network of boot camps to teach girls both coding and confidence.

“Part of my research in the Delta Lab looks at building resilience and formulating a growth mindset while in school,” says Harburg. “And what it shows is that when you’re interested in a problem, you’re much more passionate about pushing through and doing whatever it takes to solve it.”

In week-long “Brave Camps,” girls from diverse and primarily low-income communities work with mentors to code their own websites on social issues they are passionate about. Harburg’s research guides the structure and philosophy behind the workshops, which have expanded to three cities across the US in the past three years, and have welcomed more than 400 girls, 86 percent of whom have continued to code after completing a camp.

Delta Lab’s mission is to train interdisciplinary students to work collaboratively to improve the ways we work, learn, and play.

Elizabeth Gerber

Translating research into real-world impact was a goal of the Delta Lab’s co-founders from the outset.

“In graduate school, I saw researchers struggling to translate their research into practical designs and designers struggling to build research supported technology,” says Gerber. “Delta Lab’s mission is to train interdisciplinary students to work collaboratively to improve the ways we work, learn, and play.”

One ongoing project in the Delta Lab applies theories from human-computer interaction and learning sciences to design digital games that promote the growth mindset - the outlook that people’s abilities can be developed with dedication and hard work. Another project explores the gender wage gaps in requested wages within the gig economy.

“As computing increasingly pervades nearly all aspects of our lives,” says Gerber, “the Delta Lab research teams asks what the human-technology frontier looks like in important areas like information access, collaborative work and lifelong learning.”

In addition to its strong roots in engineering and computer science, the Delta Lab is associated with the Segal Design Institute, the School of Communication, and the School of Education and Social Policy, and students take classes in computer science, mechanical engineering, design, learning sciences, journalism and management. Lab members build unique perspectives on technology and social behavior while getting to work directly with faculty like Gerber to conduct and author original research. At the same time, students, like Harburg, can develop products and systems they are then encouraged to implement and evaluate for impact.

“Like other Doctoral students at Northwestern, we prepare our students to lead independent research,” says Gerber. “Our students design from a human- centered point of view, work on multidisciplinary teams, and rapidly iterate.”

Since graduating with her PhD in June, Harburg has dedicated her full attention both to expanding Brave Initiatives to more cities and to building an online curriculum that would allow instructors to launch Brave Camps anywhere in the world.

“I think in a wonderful way our the advisers in the Delta Lab have been really powerful examples of building up their own projects and applying their research in the community,” Harburg says. “Seeing that kind of entrepreneurial community in the Lab really helped me realize that I don’t want my research to just be a paper that I publish. I really want it to be something that’s out in the world making a difference in how people learn.”