Computer science students teach, inspire youngsters

December 10th 2012
Natural & Physical Sciences
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The school day has ended, but there’s another assignment awaiting the small group of fourth- and fifth-graders gathered in the library of Shorewood Hills Elementary School in Madison. They must build a story or game in Scratch, a computer programming language as their final project in an after-school computer science club run by University of Wisconsin-Madison students.

Some kids meet the news with excitement: “I know exactly what I’m going to do!” one boy exclaims.

Others are more contemplative and need assistance from club leaders Cong Han Lim, Sung Gon Kim and Alex Detrick to tease out their ideas. After sketching out their plans on paper, the students move to the computer lab to get to work.

One youngster begins creating a game where a cat moves from room to room to collect objects and earn points; another gets stuck on how to make his game – where a character hits a ball with a stick – award points and turns to Lim for help.

“The kids are really smart,” says Kim, noting how quickly the students picked up concepts such as the X-Y coordinate plane.

[caption id="attachment_10875" align="alignleft" width="360"] Students at Shorewood Hills plan out their final projects for their after-school computer science club.[/caption]

The club at Shorewood Hills is one of six around the city as part of a service-learning course in the Department of Computer Sciences. The 14 UW-Madison students enrolled in Computer Science 402: Introducing Computer Science to K-12 Students lead the clubs, most of which meet for one hour a week for 12 weeks.

UW-Madison Professor of Computer Sciences Andrea Arpaci-Dusseau created the program in the fall of 2009. She sees it as a way to combat what she calls “a misperception about what computer science is that happens before students reach college,” which is why she decided to target fourth- and fifth-grade students. Arpaci-Dusseau believes most kids think computer science involves sitting at a computer day after day using already-built technology, as opposed to actually developing programs themselves and using their creative talents.

“I wanted to show younger kids how exciting computer science is, that it’s a really creative process and that it’s about actively doing things and solving problems,” she says. “Students decide they don’t want to be CS majors long before we can interact with them. So I thought I should go earlier in the pipeline and show them how exciting computer science is.”

So Arpaci-Dusseau created an after-school club at Shorewood Hills in 2009 and ran it with the help of a few undergraduate students for three semesters. As more and more undergrads showed interest, she figured the time was right to expand – and turn the teaching over to her students to help them practice leadership and presentation skills.

“It’s a totally different skill set ” says Lim, a graduate student. “It’s something that I wouldn't have done if it wasn't for this class. This is unique.”

Arpaci-Dusseau found a model for the larger program in Biology 375, a special topics course taught by Dorothea Ledin and Shaheen Sutterwala in which UW-Madison students lead after-school general science clubs. She implemented the new format in the spring of 2011, and the course’s enrollment numbers have steadily increased.

Four other Madison elementary schools – Lowell, Nuestro Mundo, Thoreau and Van Hise – host clubs, and a sixth club meets at the Madison Children’s Museum on Sunday afternoons. In all, more than 85 fourth- and fifth-graders are participating in the clubs this semester.

[caption id="attachment_10876" align="alignright" width="360"] UW-Madison junior Sung Gon Kim, right, leads a review of the material the fourth- and fifth-graders have learned so far in the club. They'll use the skills to complete their final projects.[/caption]

Next semester, Arpaci-Dusseau will add a Sunday club through the American Indian Science and Engineering Society that will teach more advanced concepts to middle school and high school students. She’s also working with the Children’s Museum to create a girls-only club in light of the heavy gender imbalance in the computer science field.

Students appreciate the opportunity to give back to the local community. Detrick became a computer science major as a sophomore after taking Computer Science 202: Introduction to Computation – a course in which college students learn basic concepts through Scratch.

“Scratch was my introduction to computer science,” the senior says. “When I heard about this class, it was kind of my way of paying it forward.”


To see more photos of the Shorewood Hills computer science club, watch our slideshow: