4-H Camp Pilots New Computing Curriculum

8/9/2015 3:06:00 PM By Tom Moone, CS @ ILLINOIS

“Can I have an apple?” asked one high-school aged student.

“No, you get a banana” responded a second.

For an exercise at the 4-H computer camp, participants followed the rules to create a simulated finite state machine.
For an exercise at the 4-H computer camp, participants followed the rules to create a simulated finite state machine.

The student passing out apples or bananas would often take off or put on a hat as questions were asked. It eventually became apparent to the participants that there was a pattern: whether or not you received what you asked for depended on whether the hat was on, and that, in turn, depended on what was previously asked for.

The students with the hats were following rules dictated by a finite state machine, a simple model of a computing device. The rules were provided by CS Professor Lenny Pitt, who was leading a 4-H summer camp on computer programming.

“This simple game teaches the notion of state, as well as introduces students to conditional statements in programming languages,” Pitt said. “Basically, what the students are doing is trying to infer a finite state machine from observed I/O behavior.  It’s a fun and engaging challenge that we’ve done with young kids and adults alike.”

The activity was part of the 4-H summer camp curriculum that Pitt had created. For two and a half days the 29 students were in Siebel Center gaining a basic grasp of computation and computer programming. Some activities like the one described gave a graphic illustration of computing concepts. The camp was a pilot camp for a program to help 4-H develop curricula for use, eventually, in youth groups throughout the state.

CS Professor Lenny Pitt explained how the fruit exercised illustrated computing concepts.
CS Professor Lenny Pitt explained how the fruit exercised illustrated computing concepts.

In addition, the students designed brief computer games using Scratch, a well-known simple programming language developed to teach introductory computing concepts. The resulting games were rudimentary to be sure, but the participants did have something that looked relatively polished after just a short introduction to programming.

Responses of the students were overall extremely positive. The post-camp evaluation showed that students unanimously said they would recommend the camp to a friend. Most indicated they had fun and learned a lot in the two and a half days. One concern expressed was that there were some stretches of lab time that went on too long. “Looking back, we could have broken that up with a couple more CS unplugged activities,” Pitt said. “But other than that, I couldn’t be more pleased with the outcomes.”