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Computing Surge in Georgia

October 6, 2009

One sign of a successful pilot program is when it gets extended beyond its initial timeframe. Another is when it gets additional funding. A third is when it inspires copycats.

Georgia Tech’s effort to improve computer science education beginning at kindergarten and continuing all the way through doctoral programs, Georgia Computes!, is attracting attention and money for its success in drumming up interest in the field.

Launched in 2006 with a $2 million seed grant from the National Science Foundation as a three-year experiment, the program has just been awarded $1.4 million from the NSF’s Broadening Participation in Computing to keep going for another two years and to work on expanding beyond state lines in the next few years. While technology's role in daily life, and the economy, is hardly a secret, colleges struggle to attract students to computer science and graduate programs struggle even more. Georgia Computes! is working to change that.

Rather than focusing on just one minority population or age group, Georgia Computes! aims to “broaden the entire pipeline” of computer science in the state’s public education system, says Mark Guzdial, a professor of computer science at Georgia Tech and lead primary investigator for the project. “From programs for Girl Scouts to middle school summer camps to preparing more teachers to teach Advanced Placement Computer Science to the programs at all the colleges and universities in the state,” he says, “we’re trying to get more people interested in computer science.”

The program targets underrepresented minorities, women, and people with disabilities, and includes offerings tailored to the interests of those groups.

One project, Glitch, led by graduate student Betsy DiSalvo, introduces male African-American teenagers to video game testing, giving them 20 hours a week of work trying out games for Electronic Arts, Game Tap and other companies. “Training them to be testers is a good way to get them to look below the surface at the computing technologies that go into creating a program,” Guzdial says.

Besides testing games, the students also spent time learning Alice, a 3D graphics language, and Jython, a mixture of the Java and Python languages.

“It is a childhood dream job, playing games all day, but you learn it is a lot more than that,” one student in the program told a Georgia Tech publication. “But you know it has been great here and I really think that computer science is something I am looking forward to.”

Another project trains high school students to be mentors who work with Girl Scout troops and girls groups at YWCAs across the state.

In the summers, Georgia Tech and eight other institutions in the state offer camps for students in grades 4-12.

Columbus State University’s camp has grown from three one-week sessions in the summer of 2007 to 14 sessions this past summer. Each session has about 15 students, most of whom are in middle school. The most popular offerings, says Wayne Summers, chair of the university’s school of computer science, are robotics and game programming because “those are the things students come in being familiar with and seeing as fun.”

Summers conducts surveys at the beginning and end of each camp session and says they show “a significant jump in approval ratings for programming and computer science.” It’s too early to have much tracking data on how the campers’ experiences translate once they’re back at school, he says, but “we have a fairly high return rate of kids who take one camp one summer and then come back the next summer to take something different.”

The computer science school has seen growth in the number of freshman applications it gets each year, which, he thinks, is a result of “showing we’re doing innovative things in computing” by being part of Georgia Computes! The university’s outreach to high schoolers has “created awareness of our programs and a comfort level from students to feel comfortable contacting us about our undergraduate programs and how to apply.”

The teachers who have gone through workshops organized by Georgia Computes! have, Summers says, “responded with very, very positive feedback … they say they benefited greatly from the material we provided them and have been able to incorporate what they’ve learned into their courses.”

Teacher development classes at Columbus State, Georgia Tech and a third institution, Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, have helped to train dozens of computer science teachers in the last few years, Guzdial says. Twenty-two percent of the state’s high schools now offer AP Computer Science, far more than did before Georgia Computes! was introduced three years ago. Georgia has a greater proportion of secondary schools offering the course than any other state in the southeastern United States.

“Still,” Guzdial adds, “it’s a remarkably small percentage of high schools that we want to see grow.” While training more teachers in Georgia, the program will also work on formulating a model that can be adapted to the rest of the states in the region in hopes of getting them up to par with the high school offerings in the rest of the country, if not surpassing them. “We need to make a much bigger push in expanding computing education throughout this region of the country.”

Beyond Guzdial’s efforts to expand Georgia Computes!, other states are working on formulating their own, similar programs. Computer scientists from the Illinois Institute of Technology, Loyola University Chicago, the University of Illinois at Chicago and at Urbana-Champaign, have come together to create Illinois Computes and are looking to Georgia for advice. The project received an NSF Broadening Participation in Computing seed grant late last year and is still being planned.

Ronald I. Greenberg, an associate professor of computer science at Loyola, says Georgia's program was "definitely inspirational." Though the Illinois project is "not doing the same things as Georgia, we're looking to them to see what we want to do here." Illinois' program will include more outreach to high school students than Georgia's, with "graduate student and faculty visits to give students a sense of how strong the opportunities are for jobs in the field"

Cynthia Hood, an associate professor and associate chair of the computer science department at IIT, says she and her colleagues at the other three universities taking the lead on the project are “pulling together all the constituent groups that we think should be part of our initiative,” including two-year and four-year institutions, secondary schools, Argonne National Laboratory and the Brookfield Zoo.

The program’s goals sound much like those in Georgia. “We want to form a consortium within Illinois that can work to expand the pipeline in computer science from K-12 through Ph.D. programs,” Hood adds. “We’re really just trying to get students and teachers at all levels more engaged in computer science.”

 

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