Argonne National Laboratory

Argonne programming camp sparks students’ scientific curiosity

By Payal MaratheAugust 10, 2015

Kids today grow up surrounded by technology, from computers to laptops to smartphones. Despite this exposure, they aren’t always taught how their technology works—how it’s programmed, and how to fix it when it’s broken.

To contribute to computer science education, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Argonne National Laboratory hosted a summer coding camp with 42 students from Chicago-area high schools in attendance. Four days of lessons covered an introduction to the Python programming language, emphasized problem-solving skills and showed students what it’s like to be a STEM professional.

Recognizing that computer science might be intimidating for some, the teachers highlighted core concepts and aimed to spark curiosity.

“Programming boils down to problem solving,” said Ti Leggett, a researcher in Argonne’s Computing, Environment and Life Sciences directorate who led curriculum design and teaching for the camp. “It’s all logical thinking—breaking down problems and attacking them in parts. We wanted to help students develop this way of thinking.”

The event was a partnership with the DuPage County chapter of the Afro-Academic, Cultural, Technological and Scientific Olympics (ACT-SO) program. Deputy Associate Lab Director Mike Papka, who directs the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, and other computer scientists teamed up with Argonne’s Educational Programs group to design the curriculum.

Leggett, along with Joseph Insley and Silvio Rizzi from the Argonne Leadership Computing Facility, put together lessons that balanced computer time with hands-on activities. They were advised on how to keep students engaged by Meg Van Dyke, a middle school science teacher who received a Golden Apple award in 2014, and who spent her sabbatical year at Argonne.

On day one, the kids instructed each other on how to navigate an obstacle course, where each step involved moving a certain distance in a specific direction. The exercise was meant to illustrate how a coder thinks.

By the end of four days, the team taught statements, conditionals, loops and functions. Students learned to code addition problems in binary and worked through sorting tasks.

To supplement their lessons in programming, the high schoolers heard Argonne scientists speak about their research in various fields. They toured lab facilities, including the Mira supercomputer and the Center for Nanoscale Materials.

ACT-SO is invested in providing students with opportunities to explore STEM, and Argonne has been the perfect partner for this work, said Amania Drane, a member of the board and executive steering committee for the DuPage County chapter of ACT-SO.

According to Drane, African Americans are underrepresented in STEM fields because these students lack appropriate mentors. If they don’t see role models who are scientists and engineers, they’re less likely to choose a STEM career path, she said.

Maria Curry-Nkansah, chief operations officer for Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate, works with ACT-SO and helped organize this camp. To increase the number of African Americans who pursue college degrees in STEM, she said it’s important to expose them to science at a young age, “before they start thinking ‘I can’t.’”

Argonne has been able to provide this critical exposure and mentorship.

“We do exciting science here,” Curry-Nkansah said. “All we have to do is get you close to what we do and you’re going to be hooked.”

There was evidence for this in the stack of letters students wrote on the last day of camp, said Gemma Cutinello, another event organizer from Argonne’s Physical Sciences and Engineering directorate. Most kids were intrigued by what they had learned, and many asked if they could come back soon, preferably for longer.

“Our speaker was always filled with so much energy,” wrote Camron Brady. “The tours gave us so much insight on the life of a scientist.”

Another student, April Wells, said the hands-on activities were a terrific way to learn programming, and wanted to thank the instructors for being so open to questions. She said she hopes to return to the lab in the future.

Tavis Reed, a rising senior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, said he appreciated being able to see how computer science relates to other disciplines. He is primarily interested in biochemistry and chemical computation—the tour of the Center for Nanoscale Materials showed how programming could simplify his work, he said. In addition to attending this camp, Reed has participated for two years in the Argonne/ACT-SO High School Research Program, which pairs students with mentors who work at the lab.

What was most rewarding for Leggett was that even students who were reluctant to start were engaged and asking questions by the fourth day. “Observing the room, you could tell how much the kids had learned because of how curious they had become,” he said.

For both Argonne and ACT-SO, this summer’s coding camp was the first step in a larger plan to promote computer science education.

ACT-SO is coordinating a weekly code-writing club that will meet Saturdays at a local high school so that students can continue building upon what they learned at camp.

Meridith Bruozas, manager of Argonne’s Educational Programs and Outreach, said there are ideas in the works to do even more in the realm of computer science. In September, Leggett’s team will hold a workshop to train STEM educators on how to best teach computer programming skills.

The goal is to extend the reach of this curriculum—train 30 teachers, and each will transfer these lessons to at least 30 students.

Van Dyke will help by implementing a version of this curriculum in her classroom at O’Neill Middle School.

Now that lesson plans have been developed and tested, Leggett said Argonne has the foundation to make similar, future programs for kids even better.

“This camp was really the kick-off for many more things to come in computer science outreach and education,” Bruozas said.