I teach high school primarily because I believe that exposure to programming can significantly broaden students’ horizons at a critical time in their lives. I don’t expect many of my students to head off into pure computer science but I do hope that most will find opportunities to leverage computing in their application area of choice and that they will be more creative and marketable because of the experiences they’ve had through my classes.
One of the ways I try to inspire students to find ways in which computing is relevant to them is by bringing in guest speakers of various backgrounds. Last week, I had the pleasure of hosting some bioengineering undergrads from the University of Washington who put on great demos and spoke passionately about the research they are involved in. The lab they are affiliated with, headed by Dr. Ratner, has a formal outreach program and encourages local teachers to invite them to their classrooms — what a great idea! This is the second year I’ve had their group in and I continue to be impressed by their enthusiasm, professionalism and ability to convey complex ideas to high school students.
We had an hour and 50 minute long period which was almost too short for all they covered. The theme was the role of programming in bioengineering and several projects were used to illustrate how it fits in. After a brief introduction, the students split up into groups and did 20-minute rotations through 4 stations. Two stations showed LabView programs simulating biological processes. One simulated kidneys subjected to various scenarios and the other was a “game” with the objective of keeping a patient’s drug level within the right bounds. Another station showed Fold-It, a free game that gets players to fold proteins in ways that could have far-reaching consequences including the discovery of new drugs. It also happens to be a collaboration with the computer science department. The last station had a portable ultrasound machine to discuss hardware innovations.
Each mini-exhibit allowed students to try something out for themselves. Rotating through different stations meant that the students were periodically getting up and moving around and that gave the session great energy. Because there were only 4 to 6 of my students with each facilitator at one time, they got a chance to speak informally and share in ways high schoolers and college students rarely do. I heard my students asking about the dorm experience, about the process of choosing a major, and about the presenters’ future plans. When one of the undergrads shared that she was applying to medical school, one of my students spontaneously said “I can totally see you as a doctor; I think you’d be a great doctor!” I’m sure it was an energizing experience for the college students, too.
At every station, the facilitators asked students to draw on their programming background — “what do you think the challenges are in this program?” ”How would you start writing a program like this?” And the students were impressed to find that they had answers! We had some great follow-up discussions comparing LabView to Python and highlighting the power of programming as a support tool. This is an experience I’m going to be able to refer back to for the rest of the year.
Several things make this particular group’s outreach so successful:
- A dedicated, energetic faculty member who sees value in the endeavor and provides continuity over the years
- An overarching theme with supporting activities to illustrate it
- Very few platitudes (“our department has the best t-shirts,” “we really love what we do,” etc Everything was shown rather than told.)
- High relevance to the class
- Clear, well-rehearsed presentations and crisp transitions
- Hands-on opportunities
- Informal, personal discussions with potential mentors and role-models (made possible by smaller groups)
These opportunities to meet adults who love what they do, can convey their enthusiasm and can give a taste of what they do has high impact on students. Have something great to share? Come visit us!