Aspiring Computer Scientists Participate in UMass Boston’s Tech Savvy Computing Camp

Joyce (Jue) Wang, Joseph Paul Cohen, Wei Ding, Deborah Boisvert, and James Mortenson | September 13, 2010
Jue (Joyce) Wang helps students with code implementation.

Jue (Joyce) Wang helps students with code implementation.

On July 29, UMass Boston hosted its version of Ray Bradbury’s "Rocket Summer" for 20 enthusiastic sixth, seventh, and eight graders—all of them girls—through a one-day computing camp designed to serve as the launching point for developing a week-long summer science camp for young teenagers from regional middle schools.

Just as Bradbury’s fictional rocket fired its engines and transformed several acres of a wintery landscape into a summer paradise, the young girls fired up their minds with thoughts of intellectual growth and professional reward through their participation in the Tech Savvy Computing Camp, part of Boston’s citywide initiative to increase the interest and participation of women in science, technology, and scientific research. Participants in the initiative include UMass Boston, Harvard University, Boston University, Northeastern University, and Wentworth Institute of Technology.

Joseph Paul Cohen, an undergraduate computer science student, began the day with a brief talk about how students can “control the world” through computer science. Cohen shared with the campers some of the career paths that are available to students who graduate with degrees in computer science: Engineers, Web developers, software developers, security analysts, videogame designers and developers, robotics engineers, forensics professionals, database developers, and multimedia developers, to name just a few!

Following the talk, the girls were split into two teams and were introduced to the concept of algorithms, which are clear, unambiguous instructions for any computer, whether it be a GPS device, videogame, or laptop. They soon began to understand that algorithms can be beneficial, and it was at this point that their instructors helped them to formalize this concept by showing them the classic merge sort algorithm.

“By actively and visually introducing them to algorithms and then sorting these algorithms in a particular sequence to achieve a particular action or outcome, students immediately begin to think like a programmer,” said Wei Ding, an assistant professor of computer science and director of the Knowledge Discovery Laboratory, or KDLab.

The KDLab aims at the development of data analysis and data management techniques with applications to challenging problems in geosciences, astronomy, and environmental sciences. Staffed by some of Ding’s undergraduate students (such as Cohen) and graduate students, the KDLab’s areas of research include mining discriminating patterns, discovering interesting regions of arbitrary shape and granularity, designing new classification algorithms, and developing scalable algorithms to cope with real-world datasets.

Cohen and recent graduate student Joyce Wang worked under the direction of Ding to design a day that would both entertain and educate the girls. The schedule was composed of fifty-minute lessons with ten-minute breaks in between. The girls shifted their focus from the hand-held paper algorithms to the interactive educational programming tools Processing® and Alice®. Both software packages were used to show and teach them how to program using 3D animation and storytelling. Building upon their newly-acquired skill, students participated in a programming contest requiring them to develop their own figure skating routine using Alice®. Ding, Cohen, and Wang served as guides to the students during the exercise, encouraging the girls to think for themselves.

“Teamwork, the girls working in pairs, and the guidance of a teacher who encourages and coaxes them to the next level of thinking and action are the critical elements in helping them to become effective decision makers,” Wang observed. “As they gain confidence in their intellectual abilities, so will they gain the required confidence to grow as individuals.”

At noon, the girls and their teachers boarded the UMass Boston research vessel Columbia Point and enjoyed a scenic tour of Boston Harbor and its islands. During their seaborne adventure, the top programmers from the programming contest were awarded bracelets and certificates for their achievements. Filled with fresh ocean air and lunch, the group disembarked and made their way back to the classroom for a presentation on the Mars Exploration Land Rovers.

John Sheff of the Museum of Science demonstrated and talked with the students about NASA’s Land Rovers, also known as NASA’s twin robot geologists. Currently, the rovers are controlled by NASA scientists and technicians using a remarkably sophisticated system of algorithms. In the not-too-distant future, the new generation of rovers are likely to be autonomous, making their own decisions on how to best traverse the terrain. Software programmers are already hard at work on writing and testing their new algorithms on rovers in mockups of the Martian terrain. In the not-so-distant future, one or more of the girls of Tech Savvy Computing Camp and similar programs could count themselves among those scientists, programmers, and technicians who will contribute to a better understanding of Mars and the universe we on Earth share it with.

The day concluded with a Tai chi class and a visit to GoKids Boston, the university’s applied research center dedicated to providing and instilling Boston’s youth with the necessary knowledge and desire to live more active, healthier lives. GoKids uses videogame technology in most of its fitness programs, providing the girls with some practical, real-life examples of how computer science, young people, and education all converge to provide people with hope for a better future.

At the start of the day the girls were asked to complete a survey about their views on computer science. The same survey was administered at the end of the day. The results showed that the girls now feel more familiar with computer science and show more interest in it. From the beginning to the end of the day the average score went from 3.45 to 3.85. This result shows that the more girls know about computer science, the more they understand how important it is in their lives.

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The authors express their gratitude to the following UMass Boston sponsors of the Tech Savvy Computing Camp:  The Commonwealth Alliance for IT Education; the Boston Advanced Technology and Education Center (for IT professionals); the Office of the Vice Provost for Research and Strategic Initiatives; and the Department of Computer Science.

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