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7 Ways to Get Students Interested in Computer Science

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Computer science is too often defined by what it’s not. Students, teachers, and administrators frequently characterize computer science as a discipline dominated by people who stare at screens, mindlessly inputting reams of arcane code, or geniuses who thwart bank heists and assassinations. Others believe that mastering office applications or producing a webpage form the core of computer science education.

In reality, students in my class learn to develop computational thinking skills. Using a computer to solve real-world problems does indeed require becoming familiar with acronyms, mastering some basic algorithms, and writing commands in Python, Javascript, or other languages. However, the most critical skills that students will be expected to master involve collaboration, presentation, and knowing how to break a task down into its essential steps.

By approaching computer science as a flexible tool that is vital in many disciplines, students will appreciate how learning to program can benefit them in whatever career path they chose. Teachers in all content areas can also see the value in integrating computer science principles in their practice.

Here are seven tricks for getting students to enroll in computer science classes—or engage them in computational thinking in your own classroom.

1) Robot Invasion

I often take my Sphero robot to classrooms to talk about computer science. Easily programmable, Sphero features a kaleidoscope of lights and makes for a very impressive entrance. I arrange my visits with teachers in advance so that I do not disturb their normal activities. Sphero’s simple-to-use interface allows a student volunteer (and there are always several!) to make it obey their commands with a minimal amount of instruction.

While my entrance may seem unscripted, I always tailor my pitch to the audience. For example, in an anatomy and physiology class, I stress how robots are used for surgery or training doctors and paramedics. In a shop class, I can talk about how lathes and milling machines are increasingly relying on computer automation for greater speed and complex manufacturing.

2) Hour of Code

Computer Science Education Week is this week, December 7-13, 2015. This annual, worldwide event seeks to expose students to the basic steps in writing a computer program. Developed by Code.org, Hour of Code requires no special training or installation of software. Virtually any computer with a web browser is suitable.

If you feel ambitious, numerous other tutorials are available to expand upon the lessons in the Hour of Code. Even if you’re not a computer science teacher, every one of your students can benefit from learning how to code. Coding teaches logical thinking skills, while programming encourages collaboration as students share and refine their code. Computer science permeates virtually every career to some degree—why not get students comfortable with it now?

Head over to Computer Science Education Week or Code Studio to get started. Not only can you try the software yourself, there is a great collection of videos for introducing programming to your students and fellow teachers. Various versions of the Hour of Code can be used. Last year introduced tasks based on characters from the movie Frozen. This year, Star Wars is featured.

3: Build a Really Cool Computer

One of my most prized possessions is my see-through computer. Assembled from a kit by a group of my students, the case is not a black steel monolith but rather a totally transparent box made of plexiglass. When I was in high school, I built plastic body models that allowed me to understand and learn anatomy. My students and teachers alike marvel at the collection of wires, fans, and other components that they can observe with a see-through computer.

To make my computer especially interesting, I installed a programmable set of lights that displays messages with the temperature, my name, and “EHS Computer Club.” While this is a great attention-getter, students are even more impressed by the fact that we built the entire system for about $350.

It may sound intimidating, but building a computer really involves little more than a screwdriver and the right collection of parts. A simple bare bones system can be assembled and running in under an hour. My students really enjoy hands-on activities, and this type of work can engage students who think that computer science just involves writing code.

I have seen students in a variety of disciplines become inspired to build their own computer to fill a particular need. Artists may want a system to manipulate digital images and musicians can mix their own compositions. One of my former students wanted a computer to help with a bioinformatics project he was doing for a science fair.

4) Computers in Content Areas

As a licensed special education teacher, I co-teach classes in almost every content area at my high school. This has allowed me to bring programming into classrooms and show students how computers can be a great tool for their learning. Sometimes my computer students leverage my lessons in their other classes. For example, one student wrote a program that calculated Ohm’s Law for his physics homework.

In my chemistry class, students were tasked with converting gas pressures between different units of measurement. For one assignment, they had to convert atmospheres to kilopascals, or pounds per square inch, to millimeters of mercury. Faced with tables of conversion factors and punching away at calculators, I demonstrated how a program I wrote in Python could easily and accurately convert all the metric and English measurements. My chemistry colleague was also able to explain that in most laboratories, computers are just as important as flasks and Bunsen burners.

My math class was a natural environment to show how computers can be used to better understand geometry formulas. Every geometry student is faced with problems to determine if three given lengths are valid for forming a triangle. The Triangle Inequality Theorem, which states that the sum of two side lengths of a triangle is always greater than the third side, is very easily converted into a computer program. With only a few more lines of code, your program can even determine if the resulting triangle is right, equilateral, or scalene.

5) Partner With an Afterschool Club

My school has a plethora of after-school clubs. Over the years, I have gone to different club meetings and shared how computers can be used in their areas of interest. For example, the weather club was a perfect place to show how computers are used for forecasting. Working with the club adviser, we prepared a list of websites that students could visit to learn how organizations such as NOAA and NASA use supercomputers to study climate.

The anime club was another great opportunity for me to introduce computer science to students. Animation relies heavily on vast networks of computers configured as “rendering farms.” I showed a video and website that details how Hollywood uses technology to make modern movies possible.

6) Invite Special Guests

While you may be the greatest teacher in the world, students usually respond very well to a guest that is actually working in a given field. You can reach out to area businesses, family, or military recruiters that work in your district.

Last year, a U.S. Army reservist paid a visit to my classroom. While in uniform, he serves as part of the U.S. Army Cyber Command. When not on active duty, he works at a local financial institution performing security tasks for their digital infrastructure. This was a great opportunity to show students who weren’t interested in attending college that there are other ways for them to gain the skills they need for technology careers.

Local colleges often maintain outreach services that send professionals to your classroom to talk about the various programs of study at their institutions. Not only will students learn about the types of classes they can take, they can also hear about internships and placement options at these schools.

7) Field Trips

Perhaps nothing excites students more than the opportunity to take a field trip. Escaping from the confines of the classroom and learning about things in a real-world environment can really spark imaginations and reveal the dynamics of careers in the technology field. The options you have are only limited by the companies in your area and their willingness to host your students.

Several years ago, I took some students to visit Harvard Medical School. One of my friends worked there as a network administrator. We got to tour the campus data center and examine the vast racks of computing and communication equipment. The raised floor with the perforated tiles, massive battery backup, and miles of fiber optic and colorful copper cables made for a fascinating trip. Some of the professionals working there took the opportunity to speak to my students about the types of work they did and the education they needed beyond high school.

This past year, my computer science class was hosted by IBM at the Technology Innovation Center in Cambridge. We were given free accounts and tutorials to build websites using the IBM Bluemix cloud-based development environment. Volunteers from IBM were on hand to speak about their particular areas of interest and even sat down to eat lunch and mentor students.

While you may be tempted to limit your choices to companies that specialize in technology, never hesitate to look beyond a company’s core business. Two-thirds of all programming jobs are not with software or hardware development firms. The vast majority exist with all types of businesses and government agencies. Tours can often be arranged with area colleges. Students can examine computer labs and speak to students and professors about the types of research and topics they can learn.

Information technology has rapidly altered the economy and how people communicate. Being able to control and utilize computer hardware and software is as critical as reading, writing, and arithmetic for students. There are a tremendous number of websites, training, and mentoring opportunities for teachers and students that can help them learn the skills they will need to be successful in school and in their future careers. Interested in more articles and blogs about computer science? Check out the CS10K Community and their photo challenge for Computer Science Education Week!

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