Undergraduate Research Attracting High School Students to Computing

01.23.12

Years ago, reading, writing and mathematics were clearly identified as the critical elements in education, vital for individual and societal advancement. Today, computer science and technology have joined that list. And not just for 'computer users.' In order to be engaged in everyday life, individuals must know how to create and use technology. Everything – booking airline tickets, buying books, registering for classes, finding a route on a map – has been drastically altered by technology in the last five years, with many more changes headed our way. 

The emergent demand for increased attention to these disciplines is what led Dr. Patricia Morreale, assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science, to combine efforts with six undergraduate students to engage in a research project, Teaching Computational Thinking (TCT): A Comparison of Alice and Android App Inventor Programming Environments for Hispanic Students. The objective is to determine which one of these platforms, if either, is more effective in teaching the students basic computational concepts and engaging them in computer science. Alice is a visual language designed for storytelling, which is also taught in Kean's ID 1400 course. App Inventor is the programming language for Google's Android operating system, which is used on smart phones.

“This is particularly important research as students in America are not entering computing professions at the rate needed for the United States to remain competitive. The U.S. government predicts that 1.4 million computer-related jobs will be created by 2018. At the current rate, universities will only be able to provide 50 percent of the people needed to fill those positions,” said Morreale. “This shortfall is particularly acute among women, Hispanic students, and other minority student populations. Often, these students are not exposed to computing in high school, or are unaware of the variety and nature of related careers. Our research is working to change this reality.”

The participating high school students are part of Kean’s Project Adelante. Led by José Caceres and his team of experienced teachers, Project Adelante was established in 1988 as an academic enrichment program for Hispanic students, which also encourages higher education in science, technology and mathematics fields.

The Kean undergraduates are led by project manager Marvin Andujar and include the App Inventor team: Farah Zabe and Jugal Shah, and the Alice team: Lauren Aguilera and Luis Jimenez. Student Yerika Jimenez oversees project interaction with Project Adelante and facilitates classroom instruction with the other researchers. The team conducts bi-weekly research meetings, and works with the high school students on Saturdays, teaching both programming environments to four different groups of Project Adelante students, while measuring student interest and understanding. As part of the initiative, the researchers maintain web logs at http://cra-w.org/ArticleDetails/tabid/77/ArticleID/166/Default.aspx.

This summer, the team will present Attracting High School Students to Computing: A Case Study with Drag-Drop Interfaces at EdMedia '12 in Denver, Colorado. Upon completion of the research, the researchers plan to present their findings at other conferences – in between applying to graduate school.

The faculty-student research proposal was selected in a national competition for a grant from the Computing Research Association’s (www.cra.org) Collaborative Research Experiences for Undergraduates (CREU) (http://cra-w.org/ArticleDetails/tabid/77/ArticleID/166/Default.aspx)  program. This CRA-CREU award is a first for Kean University.