Friday, October 3, 2008

GHC: The Artemis Project: Teaching Computer Science to Adolescent Girls

A group of undergraduate girls presented to a full room for an afternoon session that showcased their work on the Artemis Project from Brown University. In addition to explaining what the project is, they also gave many helpful hints for anyone who might like to start their own outreach program.

A new group of students annually spend their summer teaching a free, five week technology camp to grade 8 girls. The course goals include providing a social network for these young women, as well as good role models. The organizers don't want to see the girls lose interest in science and technology because of social pressures. In addition to reaching out, of course, the undergrads gain experience teaching computer science.

The basic curriculum this past summer went something like this:
  • Basic computer literacy, including software like Microsoft Word and PowerPoint
  • Chance to take apart donated computers and learn about the hardware inside
  • Photoshop
  • HTML/CSS and web design via lectures and then step-by-step tutorials
  • Object-oriented programming with Alice
  • Basic algorithmic thinking
  • Simple Python programming
  • Robotics with Vex systems
Some of the key advice about running a course like this was to employ different teaching styles. Some kids prefer self-guided instructions, while others prefer step-by-step interactive tutorials. Being flexible is obviously important as well, since activities will always take more/less time that you expect. Some students pick up material faster than others, so add-on's and extensions should be available.

Another good tip is to understand the group you are working with. Maturity and experience levels will vary greatly, and cliques are inevitable. Try to pick out the leaders and pair them up with the struggling students to help them out. If someone is clearly not as interested as you'd hope, engage them in different ways, like giving them a special job as a helper in the lab. As was said during the talk, it can be "hard to make someone interested, but not hard to make them feel part of a community."

Finally, if you want to have faculty give presentations during the course, as this project did, make sure the presenters know to be interactive. Field trips that encourage team-building are great, as well as visits to more technical destinations like museums.

That more or less sums up the talk. I'm glad these students got the chance to present their experience at a technical conference (an opportunity I still haven't had as a Master's student). My only suggestion would be to speak slower at times. Otherwise, great job girls! I will certainly be thinking about these things if I run my computer science and games mini-course again next year.


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