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Gunter Uses Grainger Engineering Summer Camps to Help Students Find Their Passion

9/3/2020 4:15:40 PM Aaron Seidlitz, Illinois CS

Elsa Gunter, Illinois Computer Science professor and Director of Undergraduate Programs, understood the challenge ahead. Like in years past, she joined faculty colleagues throughout The Grainger College of Engineering for a high school summer camp. Unlike years past, this camp went online after all University-led in-person summer camps were cancelled this year due to the spread of COVID-19.

Elsa Gunter
Elsa Gunter

Despite this format change, Grainger Engineering’s “What it Takes” Virtual Summer Camp still found a way to reach nearly 500 students. Organizers offered two sessions, each lasting two weeks, running June 21-July 2 and July 5-16. Gunter said that during the second week – when students chose a subset of area within Grainger Engineering to dive deeper into – CS saw more than 180 students.

She also acknowledged that the online format made it more difficult to personally connect, but she still felt confident promoting two primary components about engineering and computer science. Over the course of her time with the students, Gunter said she could:

  1. Broaden their understanding of what engineering is by presenting knowledge many students don’t receive until after high school.
  2. Broaden participation in STEM, in general.

Gunter believes this is a particularly impactful time for 10th and 11th graders. After the camps take place, they can arrange their high school studies accordingly if they find themselves inspired to follow an engineering or computer science path.

“This is a great opportunity to make students aware of what opportunities exist here at the University of Illinois within Grainger Engineering,” Gunter said. “Through the workbooks we provide and discussions we have, the students are able to see what each area of engineering is about.”

Below that surface, though, she also presented an impassioned understanding of the power found within computer science.

This, Gunter said, helps alter some of the misconceptions high school students have about this field of study.

“Ten years ago, the misconception was that computer programming was computer science. You see less of that misconception today. Now, the growing thought is that computer science is data analysis. I explain that these are components, but there is so much more to the entire study,” Gunter said. “I like to say that computer programming is to computer science, what French vocabulary and grammar is to studying 18th century French literature. It’s not the subject, but without it your efforts to study it would be seriously crippled.”

Elsa Gunter led this virtual CS session with two student lab assistants during the second week of Grainger Engineering’s “What it Takes” Virtual Summer Camp.
Elsa Gunter led this virtual CS session with two student lab assistants during the second week of Grainger Engineering’s “What it Takes” Virtual Summer Camp.

By shedding light on some of the areas Illinois CS faculty and students dedicated themselves to, she helps the students understand what they might find most fulfilling.

As they find their passion in CS, students can then devote themselves to new findings that push the limits of the field forward.

“The broader point to make is that computer science is, first and foremost, a science,” Gunter said. “My review usually includes just a bit of hyperbole. The most fundamental aspect of computer science – like other sciences – is that it’s all a lie. This is what the scientific method is all about.

“We’ve created abstractions that are wrong, but that abstraction gives us a wonderful power to predict with adequate accuracy that we can accomplish certain things, that we can solve problems.”

Her hope then is that the students find inspiration in the deep, multi-faceted area of study she described.

But she also wants them to understand that the opportunity to conduct this work also comes with great responsibility.

“I want them to understand that there is depth, beauty and power in this study – as well as a bit of danger,” Gunter said. “We build really powerful tools that can impact the world. That requires more than just mathematics and science to then decide how, when and where we allow that impact to happen.

“We also have to consider the ethics behind what we do. We have to understand that even as we solve some problems, we are likely to cause others.”

To help set up this kind of engagement, camp organizers – led by Lara Hebert, public engagement coordinator for the Worldwide Youth in Science and Engineering Program at Illinois – first conducted a live online welcome and orientation during the first Sunday of the camps. Following that, the first week included do-it-yourself style exploration of subject matter from all Grainger Engineering departments through videos, articles and labs.

Once the students conducted the work, they could join live small group meetings with their counselors in the late afternoon through early evening.

During the second week, the students selected a subset of the departments to visit for a more in-depth experience, including mini-courses from 9 a.m.–12 p.m. and 1-4 p.m. Small group meetings with counselors still took place later in the day, and a live closing ceremony took place on the final Thursday. This included a guest speaker and a celebration of accomplishments.

“So much credit goes to people, like Lara Hebert, throughout Grainger Engineering for putting something like this together so successfully,” Gunter said. “It’s not easy to adjust an event like this in such short notice, but everyone involved did come together to produce something memorable for the attendees.”

According to Herbert, Grainger Engineering received one piece of student feedback that especially stood out, keying on that second week of deeper dive activity:

“This course worked really fast and was very challenging,” the student wrote. “This was not a bad thing, though, and was actually very fun for me. This course taught me the basics of what computer science is really about and helped me to understand critical problem solving and persevering through problems.

“The problem solving behind computer science requires so much critical thinking, and I am very drawn to it.”