Feeding the Pipeline: New CS Education Initiative to Reach Middle School Students Statewide

2/17/2015 5:25:00 AM By Laura Schmitt, CS @ ILLINOIS

The CS department is partnering with 4-H in a new two-year initiative to attract more youth to computer programming and related fields. 4-H Computer Connections is the latest CS @ ILLINOIS endeavor to address the projected imbalance between computing jobs and college graduates.

Lenny Pitt
Lenny Pitt
Lenny Pitt

“We want to get young people interested in programming, which will help feed the pipeline,” said CS Professor Lenny Pitt, who leads the department’s outreach efforts. “Even if they don’t go into CS, understanding a bit about how computers work is going to be important in just about every field.”

By 2020, the US Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that American colleges and universities will produce 40,000 CS graduates while there will be close to 140,000 CS-related jobs. In addition, 62% of the new jobs created between 2010 and 2020 in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) fields will be in the computing field.

By partnering with Illinois 4-H, which is operated by the U of I Extension, CS will be able to reach as many as 1,000 middle school-age students statewide by next year. “4-H has an incredible reach, with staff in every county of the state,” noted Pitt. “This seems like a really natural partnership.”

Other partners include the U of I College of Education, the Department of Mechanical Science and Engineering, and the Office of Math, Science & Technology Education. Pitt and his colleagues are developing easy-to-use computer programming modules based on Scratch, a popular online programming environment.

In June, they will host a workshop on campus for 4-H volunteers from around the state who run after-school technology clubs to train them on implementing the modules. According to Robert Smith, U of I Extension Robotics Educator and part of the collaboration, Pitt’s involvement is crucial because he can help volunteers who may be intimidated by programming.

“One of Lenny’s gifts is that he’s very good at teaching anybody that they can teach computer programming,” Smith said.

The program will continue through next year, with a second workshop for 4-H volunteers either on campus or in Chicago in spring 2016. In addition, all the CS programming modules will be available on the statewide 4-H website.

CS alumni are welcome to lend their expertise to the effort by volunteering as a mentor at any of the 4-H technology clubs statewide. “Chances are there are alumni around the state with computing and programming skills and 4H could definitely use their help,” Smith said.

This 4-H partnership is the latest example of CS outreach efforts aimed at middle school students, a critical age at which to pique kids’ interest in science and technology. “You want to catch them here so they can take relevant courses in high school,” Pitt noted.

Other CS-related outreach efforts include:  the very popular Girls Engaged in Math and Science (GEMS) free summer camps, as well as the Girls Adventures in Math, Engineering & Science (GAMES) for high-school-age women.  In addition, Pitt, CS Associate Professor Craig Zilles, and CS Lecturer Cinda Heeren have developed curriculum modules for local high school teachers and conducted summer workshops for elementary and high school teachers so they can learn to incorporate programming into the K-12 curriculum.