Bringing computer science to the kids

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Iowa State effort shows students what computer science really is.

A group of Iowa State University faculty that form the Department of Computer Science’s recruitment and retention committee has become increasingly aware that Iowa faces a shortage of information technology workers in the years ahead.

The committee chair, Les Miller, professor of computer science, is a former high school teacher who said not enough Iowa youth have computer programming knowledge. Miller explained that high schools don’t have the resources to add programming to the curriculum. As a result, many students enter college declaring a computer science major without truly understanding the program.

Computer science is a degree program and career field that is "highly scientific and technical," and requires knowledge in math and science, he said.

Miller and the other faculty in the committee, including Johnny Wong, Wallapak Tavanapong and Soma Chaudhuri, are doing their part by conducting family nights at various Iowa schools and libraries to expose youth to programming. Miller has also been teaching a weekly programming course for students in Perry, Iowa, and is involved in State 4-H youth programming activities.

"Some students are told, ‘You are really good with computers and you ought to be in computer science,’" said Miller. However, he explained, understanding how to develop software and write programs involves more than being good at games or PowerPoint or being able to install operating system updates.

"If we can explain to younger students what computer science really is," Miller continued, "in the long-term it will have a positive impact on retention at Iowa State because we won’t have so many students coming here and realizing they are in the wrong field."

So Miller began scheduling family-student night events at central Iowa schools and libraries. The target age group is third through seventh graders who, with a parent, learn how to use simple and fun programming software. Overall the turnout by students and their parents at the events has been good and Miller terms the effort a success.

"The kids at the end of the hour, especially if we can engage the parents, are using this," Miller explained. "Most of these kids are going home and downloading the program."

Miller uses a handful of programming software with the youth, including "Scratch," a free software program developed at Massachusetts Institute of Technology specifically to allow kids to learn programming in a creative and fun environment, and share their projects online with other young developers. It allows youth and teens to create digital stories, games and animations, and for others to contribute to them in a team environment. Youth also learn about math and computation, and how to think logically and creatively.

"The students are writing software and developing games. This is programming," Miller said. "The kids are learning something very different from anything else they’ve done.

"Every time we have done this with parents and students together, the result has been very positive. This has been a very successful program because now we have students getting interested in programming rather than just game playing or hanging out on the Internet and thinking they are doing computing."

Iowa 4-H Youth Development has helped Miller promote family-student night events around Iowa.

"It’s a great way for us to expose kids to programming in 4-H," said Jay Staker, Extension youth development specialist at Iowa State. "Les has developed a great way to engage youth that is not overwhelming and can really help them understand the conceptual basis of programming."

"4-H is a valuable partner of ours," Miller added.

Participation in a school career fair in Perry led Miller to start teaching an after-school class there in 2010. Nearly every Wednesday Miller instructs several seventh through ninth graders about the Java programming language. A special emphasis was to introduce programming – and math and science – to females and also minorities because Perry has a large Hispanic population.

To learn more about 4-H Youth Development, see