Home > education, kids > It’s All About the Money, Stupid (Economically Less Advantaged Youth Want a Credible Path to Economic Empowerment)

It’s All About the Money, Stupid (Economically Less Advantaged Youth Want a Credible Path to Economic Empowerment)

NB: This post is about my education research.

I feel so stupid–I should’ve seen it all along. It’s all about the money.  About searching for a better life. In a way that is believable. In the context of a system where adults and institutions are regarded with suspicion.

When my PhD student Betsy Disalvo started Glitch Game Testers, she first tried the activity with kids of different ages.  In Glitch, economically less advantaged African American youth work testing  pre-release games from real game companies. Their work game testing is integrated with intro CS education. Almost all of our students have chosen to go to college and study CS or related disciplines as their major.  When Betsy did preliminary workshops with 14 and 15 year-olds, they seemed not quite mature enough for the activity. For that reason, we decided to focus on 16 and 17 year-olds. And then it occurred to us that those teenagers are old enough to hold part-time and summer jobs. Kids from poor backgrounds needs to earn money if they can. How could they have time for school, a job, and Glitch? It didn’t all add up. So we decided to make Glitch a paying job.  Our original grant from the National Science Foundation didn’t plan for that–we just had budgeted for a small honorarium for our participants. So we took some of the money meant for my summer salary and got permission to give it to our teens. We raised more money for their salaries from the Arthur M. Blank Foundation. We made it work.

Our initial reasons were  practical–a detail.  But as we’ve worked with our teens for the last couple years, it became clear that this was a central factor in why the program was such a success.  What we’ve learned is so astoundingly obvious and simple. It was there all the time and we never saw it. Kids from less advantaged backgrounds want a secure future. Adults and school officials know that education is the path to that better future. But kids don’t believe them.  And why should they? They often don’t have role models who have gone to college and found success.  It doesn’t seem real as a possibility.  The role models for success they have are prominent African Americans in the sports and entertainment industries.  The documentary film Hoop Dreams does a great job of documenting these young men’s dreams. The kids in Hoop Dreams want a better life, and basketball is the path they can imagine.

They imagine themselves as basketball or football stars, but those dreams are unlikely to come true. How do we help them to imagine themselves as high-tech workers?  The role models exist, but are rare compared to those from the entertainment and sports industries. What we discovered in Glitch is that one way to encourage them to dream of being high tech workers is to make them legitimate high tech workers. Our Glitch students work for real game companies. They realize they can work in the game industry because they already are doing so.  And that higher education is the path to making this real.

And now that I realize this was key, I see it everywhere. For example, the Computer Clubhouse Network creates drop-in computer centers in economically less advantaged neighborhoods to encourage these youth to get interested in computer science. My students and I have volunteered at clubhouses in Atlanta from time to time over the years, and we consistently observe one thing: each clubhouse has a computer music suite, and making your own electronic music/rap is by far the most successful clubhouse activity.  The clubhouse kids will tell you that they are hoping to become rap stars.  They work hard on their music–incredibly hard.  Because there’s a dream behind it. The creators of the clubhouse network were hoping the kids would work hard on learning real computing skills, and dream of being part of the computer industry. And that does happen–but much more rarely.

The research questions then becomes, how do we help kids from less advantaged backgrounds to embrace dreams with a higher chance of success? The Glitch model embodies a core concept from educational theory: Legitimate Peripheral Participation (LPP).  People can learn to be part of a community of practice by starting to do simpler tasks that meaningfully contribute to real work. It’s important that as they do their work, they have a chance to observe the work of more senior members of the community on a day-to-day basis.Over time, they can take on more and more important roles in the community. So here’s my pitch: we should create more opportunities for teenagers to do paid internships with real businesses.

I do work on encouraging kids to get interested in computing, because I’m a computer science professor. And because we have a shortage of computing professionals and a lack of  diversity in the computing industry which both hurt the industry. But honestly I don’t care whether  teens go into computing or engineering or teaching or finance…. What I hope for the kids and for our society is economic mobility. That whoever you are, if you work hard and stay in school you can build a better life for yourself and your family.  It seems to me that LPP is the way to make this happen. Every 16-year-old should have the opportunity to do an internship with a real company.  To try out real work, contributing to a real business in a meaningful way. To develop friendships with adult workers who can guide them on realistic career paths. To realize that they can be part of the industry of their choice and contribute meaningfully–because they already are.

NB2: Glitch Game Testers is the creation of Betsy Disalvo. Who you should hire for a faculty position, because she’s brilliant and all this is her work.

Categories: education, kids
  1. December 29, 2011 at 9:33 am

    The idea of providing monetary incentives to disadvantaged youth is an innovative and intriguing approach and one that has gained some traction in education research. For example, Spencer, Noll, and Cassidy (2005) have found that compared with a control group, students from low-resource backgrounds who were provided monetary incentives were more likely to complete the 9th, 10th, and 11th grades. Most programs aimed at narrowing the achievement gap rely on a top-down approach, which includes funding for curriculum development, class size, infrastructure improvement, etc., But, Glitch and other models lend support to a bottom-up approach in which poor students are given monetary incentives to learn and achieve. It seems to me that the bottom-up approach, despite its controversy, may be a fruitful avenue for enhancing diversity in computing and other STEM fields.


  1. December 12, 2011 at 12:08 pm

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