Summer 2020 Youth Coding Workshop Inspires Future Public Health Leaders

Everyone knows the summer of 2020 has been different from other summers due to the COVID-19 global pandemic. Nowhere is this more palpable than in a city like Boston. The city, which is usually crowded around this time of the year with locals enjoying the warmer weather and tourists alike, is quieter. Boston University School of Public Health is no exception. Our campus, which normally hosts groups of middle school and high school students around this time of the year, was predominantly empty. However, this did not mean that learning stopped during the summer. In fact, Population Health Exchange adapted to the challenges posed by COVID-19 and stuck to their core mission to educate the future generation of public health leaders through their first online youth coding workshop.

How are data, math, and coding tools used to advance public health?

Learn to Code: Numbers and the Disease, an interactive online coding workshop for youth, guided students in middle and high school to answer this question. Over the course of two one-hour online sessions students learned to gather data and analyze it using the free coding software “R”. They used real-world data from the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts to visualize the data in graphs and tables.

PhD candidates Zachary Baucom, Anastasia Gurinovich and Adrienne O’Donnell led the workshops. “Public health is in the news now more than ever. Therefore, we thought this was a good time to introduce middle & high school students to public health, the role of biostatistics, and the utility of programming,” they said. “We knew that the Spring was challenging for students with the quick change to remote learning, so we wanted to offer a fun and relevant learning opportunity.”

The students were engaged and excited. Most of them were familiar with basic statistics, but public health was new to many. The instructors enjoyed sharing their expertise and passion for public health with a younger audience and putting together learning material in R Studio Cloud, which allowed students to program without downloading any software. The students used real data from the COVID-19 pandemic in Massachusetts to create and interpret descriptive statistics and figures for their data.

Max, an 11 year old from Roxbury, said the program got him interested in biostatistics and how math relates to coding. However, he was not alone in this regard. Jackson, an 11 year old from Stoneham, said he grew more interested in public health because of the program. He was especially interested in how epidemiologists and biostatisticians used numbers to track disease. Finally, Ameera, a 14-year-old from Bedford, wished the program had been longer. Clearly, students could not get enough of it!

In addition to educating the future leaders of public health through high quality online workshops like Learn to Code, and making the program accessible and affordable to anyone, PHX donated the proceeds of the program registrations to Black Girls Code. Black Girls Code is a not-for-profit organization that focuses on providing technology education for African-American girls.

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