Meenakshi Syamkumar stands in front of about 20 middle-school students who are participating in the Latino Youth Summit session “Intro to App Building,” while Caroline Hardin walks around the room. The two are graduate students who have led this mobile-app workshop several times. Syamkumar tells the students that the standard phrase when getting a new app to speak is, “Hello, world,” and she shows them how to accomplish this. A few seconds later, “Hello, world” rings out from tablets across the room, and then “HI! Hi! Hi!” and “I want to sleep!” Then one of the students programs their app to say, “What am I doing here?” to which Syamkumar, a UW-Madison PhD student in the Department of Computer Sciences, answers, “Good question! What are you doing here? You’re here to build apps!” and immediately one of the students programs their app to say, “I’m here to build apps!”
The Computer Sciences Department session during the summit is part of the department’s effort to introduce computer sciences to pre-college audiences, to encourage underrepresented populations to participate in computer sciences, and to provide a service to the Madison community. Mike Swift, University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor of Computer Sciences, describes the goal as “demystifying computer programming.”
Hardin, a UW-Madison PhD student in computer science education, is researching how to teach computer sciences in ways that engage underrepresented groups. Designing apps is good for students who might not have Internet or a computer at home but have a smartphone or a tablet, she says.
The first project Hardin and Syamkumar present to the students is about text-to-speech conversion. They start with making apps talk because “it’s fun, it’s silly, and it allows them to literally have a voice in computer science. You see them laugh the first time it talks,” says Hardin, and Syamkumar adds, “That first time, kids jump around saying that their app has done what they told it to do. It’s exhilarating for them.” This is proven true when a student programs his app to talk, and he calls out, “Yes! I did it!”
The purpose of the second project, a drawing-based app, is to capture the attention of more creative kids, says Syamkumar. It’s about art and expression, which seem very different from math, says Hardin.
During the final part of the workshop, the students take pictures they can share on social media. “Taking pictures allows them to see themselves in computer science, partly because their face is right there in the program. We want this to be a thing they see as breaking the stereotypes – it’s silly, it’s fun, it’s artistic, it’s creative, it’s social – and it’s not intimidating. They come out of this thinking that was really fun, and I feel like I can do it,” says Hardin.
“Nothing else feels like working with kids; the excitement that comes off of them fuels us,” says Syamkumar.
The workshop was largely developed by Adalbert Gerald Soosai Raj, a UW-Madison graduate student pursuing an interdisciplinary Ph.D. in Computer Sciences and Education. “Right from the beginning of my PhD, I was interested in increasing the diversity in CS,” says Soosai Raj. He was asked by Swift to be involved in this project because he knew Soosai Raj “wanted to do something that would help attract people from different backgrounds into computer science,” says Soosai Raj. “This will be an important theme in my post-graduate-school work.”
The National Center for Women in Information Technology provided funding for developing the workshop as part of an effort to increase female participation in computer science. The workshop has previously been given to the UW-Madison Women in Science and Engineering Learning Community and to the Black Students Union from Sun Prairie High School.
The two-day Latino Youth Summit is held annually on the UW-Madison campus and is sponsored by the UW-Madison Office of Undergraduate Recruitment and Retention, School of Education, and Division of Diversity, Equity & Educational Achievement; DreamBank; and the Centro Hispano of Dane County.