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Making Computer Science Cool

Posted on May 26, 2016
brain-controlled drone
UF Students make computer science fun through innovative brain-drone racing. (Photo credit: UF Photography)

Racers adjusted their headgear and spectators anxiously filed into Ustler Hall at the University of Florida (UF) last April for a ground-breaking event: the world’s first Brain-Drone Race. The contest to showcase use of competitors’ brain wave signals to race drones on a track was a high-profile demonstration project of the university’s Human-Experience Research Lab (HXRL). The lab is one of many directed by Dr. Juan E. Gilbert (PAESMEM 2011), chair of the Computer Science and Engineering department at UF’s Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

The Brain-Drone Race embodies Gilbert’s vision of attracting more women, African Americans and other minorities to careers in computer science through research and experiments that have potential social and human impact. The work of Gilbert and fellow computer engineering PAESMEM honorees—including Dr. Maja J. Matarić (PAESMEM 2009) at the University of Southern California (USC) and Dr. Karen Panetta (PAESMEM 2010) at Tufts University—is part of a movement toward systemic educational change to make computer science integral to student learning. This year, the White House announced Computer Science for All (CS for All), an initiative to realize that goal nationwide.

Putting a Human Face on Computer Science

In launching CS for All, the White House noted that last year more than 600,000 high paying tech jobs across the United States went unfilled. Gilbert can understand why. “In my field, people think, ‘I’m [going to] be stuck in a cubicle somewhere just coding all day.’ They don’t see how that affects society or helps people. What we do is show them how they can help people with their skills in computer science. When we do that, it changes everything.”

While Gilbert champions recruitment and retention of women and minorities in computer science, his own path to the discipline was circuitous. An undergraduate chemistry major, Gilbert was advised to pursue graduate school to further his studies. “I was the first in my family to go to college, and my goal was to find work after graduation,” says Gilbert. To achieve that goal, Gilbert enrolled in a computer programming class to get a job sooner. However, he liked it so much, computer science became more than a means to fast employment; it became his passion.

As Gilbert pursued advanced computer science studies in the 1990s, he was the only African American in his graduate computer science classes at the University of Cincinnati. Through his association with African American social science graduate students, Gilbert learned that more women and minorities pursue advanced social science degrees based on a desire to help others.

Putting that research into practice, Gilbert’s lab engages minority and women undergraduates and graduates with computer-human experience projects that demonstrate how computer science can address social needs. Beyond drone-racing, the laboratory has developed technology to help blind citizens vote independently for the first time; conducted hands-free texting studies to seek ways of preventing accidents and engaged K-12 youth in learning algebraic principles through hip hop music and storyelling.

Among Gilbert’s doctoral mentees is France Jackson, who was an undergraduate industrial engineering senior at Clemson University in South Carolina when she heard Gilbert speak at a conference off-campus. What Gilbert said about using technology to affect the human experience resonated with her. “I’ve been involved in every aspect of his HXR lab ever since,” says Jackson. Now, in the final years of her doctoral studies at the UF, Jackson plays a major role in all of HXRL’s projects. One of her projects is developing a more aesthetic brain-computer interface (BCI) to be used by future potential brain-drone races and other impactful uses.

“When it comes to brain computer interfaces, no one is looking at the user experience. Currently, they look like spiders on your head or something from Star Trek. The average person is not going to want to wear it because it’s not attractive. So I am looking at how to redesign the device without losing the quality of the signal or without losing too much, if any, function,” says Jackson.

Teaching the Basics: Reading, Writing and Algorithms

Increasingly, efforts to empower more young women, like Jackson, to reap the rewards of studying computer science are underway. The CS for All White House announcement points out that in 2015, only 22 percent of students taking the AP Computer Science exam were girls. Programs, like Nerd Girls, are making progress toward increasing these national statistics on women in computer science through mentoring. Nerd Girls boasts a 98 percent graduate success rate and a 100 percent rate for African American women pursuing advanced STEM degrees. 

“The high school students and undergraduate students in Nerd Girls are going in and doing community service and introducing these concepts to elementary school girls,” says Panetta, a professor of electrical and computer engineering and associate dean of engineering at Tufts and founder of the peer-mentoring program. “They can not only talk about what they’ve done, but then they do projects with them, like peanut butter and jelly sandwich-making, to demonstrate how algorithms work.”

Panetta explains that algorithms are conceptually the same as making a sandwich: gathering the materials, such as food and utensils, (similar to data and hardware) and applying it to a process (the steps for making a sandwich) to produce an outcome. “It’s about taking raw materials through a process to make something else.”

Teachers Experience Computer Science Immersion

At the University of Southern California, Dr. Maja Matarić, professor of computer science and vice dean for research at the Viterbi School of Engineering, leads a team that trains teachers in computer science education at the K-12 level, particularly in schools located in low-income areas of Los Angeles.

With funding from the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Google, Matarić and her colleague, Dr. Gisele Ragusa, professor of engineering education, who leads teacher and university engineering education research at the university’s Viterbi School of Engineering, work with engineering faculty to immerse teachers in 10 weeks of robotics and engineering laboratory experiences that assist them in developing successful computer science curricula and lesson plans.

“The teachers have limited engineering and content pre-service training. So we design experiences, based on pedagogical best practices, to initially provide the teachers with the big picture ideas to inspire them,” says Matarić. “Then we collaborate with them on utilizing their newly acquired engineering and computer science content knowledge in their classroom to further benefit the children that they teach.” Matarić concludes that when teachers understand the material through research experiences, they transfer their experience and enthusiasm to their students in the classroom. “When we get the teachers working in collaboration with faculty in the laboratories, they come up with incredible and imaginative ways to share the novel, contemporary content with their students.”

Bridging the Computer Science Education Divide

Gilbert says expanding computer science education for minorities and women is more than a lofty goal: He calls it a national imperative.

To be successful, Gilbert says CS for All will require filling huge existing gaps in teacher education and certification in computer science, creating national computer science curriculum standards and changing student perceptions of the field to be successful. Despite the challenges, Gilbert says bridging the computer science education divide is worth it. He cites CS for All data, which estimate more than half of all STEM jobs will be computer science-related by 2018.

“[Computer science] is the most interdisciplinary field. It touches everything. For example, if I train someone in biology, how does that affect manufacturing? If I train someone in manufacturing, how does that affect biology or education? Whatever industry that you pick, there is a computing component to it. That’s why it’s an essential competency.”

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