Inspiring future computer scientists at CS Education Day

Students from high schools around the Bay Area came to Northside last fall for Computer Science Education Day. DAN GARCIA PHOTOStudents from high schools around the Bay Area came to Northside last fall for Computer Science Education Day. (Photo by Dan Garcia.)As the fall semester came to a close in December, teams of freshman computer science students gathered in Sibley Auditorium to present final programming projects. Everything went without a hitch—from the electronic maze solver dubbed “Mr. Maze” to a voice synthesizer that introduced itself with a joke, and then laughed at it.

Student presenters, all enrolled in Computer Science 10—“The Beauty and Joy of Computing”—were excited to show off their work. But the audience was even more enthusiastic.

“I didn’t know students could do those things with computers,” said Binita Dhital, a senior at Balboa High School in San Francisco. “I was surprised by that.”

Dhital was one of more than 300 high school students who visited Berkeley that day as part of Computer Science Education Week, a nationwide event to promote computing education and career opportunities for students at all levels. Founded in 2009, the event honors Grace Murray Hopper, a computer science pioneer who engineered new programming languages and developed standards for computer systems until her death in 1992.

At Berkeley, EECS faculty hosted CS Education Day by offering a full program of activities for high schoolers from around the Bay Area, some of whom had recently submitted their college applications. The morning included a short lesson in the making of an animated film, by the UC Berkeley Undergraduate Graphics Group, and a presentation about virtual environment design from Berkeley’s Teleimmersion Lab. Assistant Professor Pieter Abbeel introduced PR2, a robot he and his EECS students taught to fold towels. As Abbeel discussed the challenges of teaching computers how to learn, a student in the audience asked whether he thought machines could one day become more intelligent than people.

EECS Associate Chair David Culler welcomes 300 high school students to CS Education Day. DAN GARCIA PHOTOEECS Associate Chair David Culler welcomes 300 high school students to CS Education Day. (Photo by Dan Garcia.)“There are multiple ways you can define intelligence,” Abbeel replied. “In your lifetime we will see robots in our households. Students here at Berkeley helped design surgical robots. But in terms of having a robot with feelings and emotions, that’s something we probably can’t do right now.”

Later in the morning, students crowded the auditorium’s small stage for a chance to give PR2 a high five.

“I didn’t know that robots could do those things,” said Alankrita Dayal, a sophomore at Fremont’s Mission San Jose High School. Dayal has studied Java, C++ and Photoshop and works with the Berkeley Foundation for Opportunities in Information Technology (BFOIT), which supports women and ethnic minorities to pursue computing education and careers.

Dayal’s high school offers opportunities to learn digital imaging and programming in Java, but not all high schools do. In general, high school educators need support to bring students beyond computer literacy and into learning computer science. 

“Last year I began directing more attention toward high school computing programs,” said Dan Garcia (Ph.D.’00 EECS), who teaches Berkeley’s CS10 course and is active in a professional association of computer science educators. “I have really had my eyes opened to how much difference I can make by supporting computing teachers in high schools. High school is really where it’s at.”

By any measure, Cal’s second CS Education Day was a success, with busloads of students witnessing what undergraduates and graduate students in computing really do. 

Students’ eyes were opened to the possibilities of robotics, animation, and pursuing computer science as a career. MIYOKO TSUBAMOTO PHOTOStudents’ eyes were opened to the possibilities of robotics, animation, and pursuing computer science as a career. (Photo byMiyoko Tsubamoto.)“I never thought that computer science students got to design robots and make movies,” said Binita Dhital, who moved to the United States three years ago from Nepal and has submitted her application to attend Berkeley in the fall. “It’s very exciting. These computers are fast and maybe better than the human mind.”

The day’s final activity gave students a chance to program in BYOB (Build Your Own Blocks),also called Snap. BYOB is a visual programming language developed at Berkeley. EECS graduate students led a series of sequential hands-on exercises to help the high schoolers get a feel for programming.

“For some of these kids, this event could really be the hook that encourages them to declare a computer science major in college,” said Michael Ferraro, a teacher at Balboa High who brought 28 students to Cal. “By the end of the day, these kids are all really excited.”