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Mohan Teaches Middle Schoolers, Trying to Inspire Future Programmers

1/22/2019 10:10:31 AM By Allie Arp, Coordinated Science Laboratory

Today’s kids may be digital natives, but Illinois Computer Science Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan and his students like introducing them to the technology behind computers, tablets, and smart phones.

Mohan and Illinois CS doctoral students Chien-Ying Chen and Monowar Hasan have for more than a year taught
“I could see their excitement. Even if they don’t become programmers, even if it’s not their career, it will definitely shape what they do.” -- Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan.
I could see their excitement. Even if they dont become programmers, even if its not their career, it will definitely shape what they do. -- Research Assistant Professor Sibin Mohan.
Urbana Middle School students the basics of computer programming.

The content Mohan and his students used was taken from curriculum developed by Illinois CS professors. They use Scratch, a visual programming language aimed at kids. After a short lecture explaining the assignment, Chen and Hasan give students lab assignments. And most of the students, Mohan says, excel.

“These kids were super smart,” Mohan said. “It’s great to see them interested in computer science and programming.”

Mohan was also impressed by the diversity of the group. Forty percent of the members of the first class, in the fall of 2017, were girls.

The teaching sessions have also offered good opportunities for Chen and Hasan to get teaching experience.

“This was a lesson in how to teach middle school kids and keep their attention, especially when they’re this smart,” Chen said. “It’s just a great learning experience on how to craft material and keep students engaged at different age levels.”
Chien-Ying Chen
Chien-Ying Chen

When one student wanted to play Mario instead of working on assignments, Chen, Hasan and Mohan showed him how to change the game’s code to make Mario jump higher or run faster.

And some of the students had already mastered the lessons they were teaching and were building their own games or working in the more advanced Python.

“Our plan was to give them a flavor of computer science to get them interested, but some were already very advanced,” Hasan said. “In the future, we could design a program and let them do their own coding. I think they would do a really good job.”

Whether the students eventually become computer scientists or not, Mohan considers the class a success.
Monowar Hasan
Monowar Hasan

“It’s an age where you’re not thinking of careers -- these kids were interested in learning programming and making the computers do what they want,” Mohan said. “I could see their excitement. Even if they don’t become programmers, even if it’s not their career, it will definitely shape what they do.”

Jana Sebestik, a curriculum specialist at the Office of Math, Science and Technology Education at the University of Illinois, was instrumental in making the connections with the Urbana Middle School as well as sourcing the class material. The programming class is part of outreach activities funded by a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Sayan Mitra, a professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering, and his students Ritwika Ghosh and Hussein Sibai also have participated in the program.