Programming a new perspective

November 30, 2010

When Lecturer Matthew Tennyson first expressed an interest in computer science as a high school student his teachers discouraged him, pointing to a number of negative stereotypes associated with the discipline. Shunning the naysayers, Tennyson is now a faculty member in Bradley’s Department of Computer Science and is leading an outreach effort to give area high school students opportunities he never had.

“I want them to be excited about what computer science really is, not just playing video games,” said Tennyson. “How does a computer work? How do you design the video game?”

As part of an early observance of Computer Science Education Week, Tennyson has invited students from three high schools to work side-by-side with Bradley students and faculty and Professor Michael Kölling, an internationally renowned computer science educator and programmer from the University of Kent. Like Tennyson, Kölling recognizes the importance of showing students and educators alike that computer science is a social, creative, and intellectually stimulating field.

“In the last 10 years, we’ve seen a radical drop in enrollment in computer science programs all over the world,” said Kölling, who has written software and several textbooks for beginning programmers. “Part of the reason is that computer science has an image problem. If we want to make a change, we have to get to them while they’re young.”

Freshman Ethan Hill, who helped run the workshops, can identify with high school students who haven’t learned what an education in computer science can offer. 

“We help them explore an opportunity and find out whether they have interests in this area and show them that there are very practical applications and many different things they themselves can do,” Hill said.

Eureka High School computer programming teacher Bill Glass enrolled his students in the workshops at the encouragement of one of his former students who now studies computer science at Bradley. Glass said it’s a matter of resources, not necessarily a lack of interest, which keeps many small schools from offering more extensive computer science curricula. For schools with limited programs, Bradley’s workshops can be the determining factor in whether students stay interested in computer science.

“These workshops are going to help them make a decision about whether this is something they can handle or want to do,” said Glass. “They’re getting their feet wet.”

An apt follow-up to the workshops is planned for this Saturday: a video gaming competition that will give the high school students a chance to go controller-to-controller against their new Bradley friends. Armed with a deeper knowledge of how programs are created, the students will see it as anything but “just a game.”