Students Get Creative with Code

Lincoln Laboratory staff makes computer science accessible for students

Kylie Foy | Technical Communications Group

CodeCreative teacher Chada with students Code Creative organizer Karishma Chadha, connects with students while teaching coding exercises.

"The image of hackers typing away, hunched over a screen, with text floating by at a rapid speed may seem cool, but it is far from reality," said Karishma Chadha, a computer scientist who works in Lincoln Laboratory's Secure Resilient Systems and Technology. This image, she worries, is intimidating to students who feel they don't fit the stereotype of a computer scientist. With the goal of making computer science accessible to all, Chadha and colleagues from outside of the Laboratory organized a new Lincoln Laboratory outreach program called Code Creative. The 10-week course taught high school students the core concepts and problem-solving skills behind computer science. "Our goal was to show students that computer science is, in fact, very accessible, fun, and powerful. We wanted to emphasize code as a tool to feed creativity," Chadha said.

For two hours each Saturday through the spring, the group of 20 sophomores and juniors settled into the classroom for lessons at Beaver Works on MIT's campus in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In recruiting applicants, the organizing team targeted Boston-area schools that may lack robust STEM programs. Most applicants were encountering computer science concepts for the first time. A team of seven Laboratory mentors developed the curriculum and guided students one-on-one through the exercises.

Rather than teaching specific technical skills like coding in Python or building a web page, the curriculum focused on the principles of computer science and the problem-solving techniques used by computer scientists. The first half of each class dove into an "unplugged" activity that demonstrated basic computer science principles, without using computers. "We wanted to emphasize that these principles are not specific to computers at all. The general concepts learned in computer science curriculums can be applied to problems we encounter in our everyday lives," Chadha said.

CodeCreative students with certificates Code Creative, a 10-week educational outreach program, introduced students to the core concepts of computer science. Each participant took home a certificate of completion.

One unplugged activity asked students to sort playing cards. The students were given a set of eight cards placed facedown in a row, a set of commands to control hand movement, and constraints on how many cards could be viewed at a time. "Not being able to look at all the cards at the same time forced the kids to come up with a step-by-step solution, or algorithm—one of our big buzzwords taught and emphasized through the class," Chadha said.

After each unplugged activity, students applied core concepts with exercises from Code.org. In the final weeks of the course, staff gave lessons on different fields within computer science to show the range of career possibilities. Benjamin Kaiser, who participated as a mentor, shared a lesson about cyber security. He focused on three main ideas: what cyber security is, why it is important, and what cyber security professionals do in their jobs. "The idea was to avoid getting too technical too quickly and instead try to pique the students' interest in a field that most of them knew nothing about," Kaiser said.

During the last class, mentor Andrew Fishberg taught students how to build an arcade-style 2D game using a program called GameMaker. "With the widespread advent of video games among children, game development is a valuable (and often underutilized) way to get students excited about code. Turns out, many of the topics of a traditional introductory computer science class can be scoped in the context of a video game to make it more tangible and exciting," Fishberg said. The kids were invited to play around with the program by adding features, new levels, and whatever else their imagination led them to create. Students then shared their creations with the class, wrapping up the final exercise of the course.

"This was our first time holding this program, and as such, we learned a lot of lessons along the way," Chadha reflected. One of the team's greatest challenges, and successes, was creating activities that truly engaged the students. Several students have eagerly expressed interest in a follow-up course. "The initial feedback indicates we really helped make a difference—many students have indicated that we helped positively influence their career paths and, at the very least, promoted code literacy," Fishberg said.

Code Creative students and mentors Students are joined by mentors (kneeling, left to right) Andrew Fishberg, Jeffrey Brandon, Sarah Scheffler, Karishma Chadha, and Nicole Francisco, a software engineer at Amadeus IT Group who organized the program with Chadha.

 

Posted June 2017

 

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