Google has awarded the University the Google igniteCS grant to fund the Geaux CS program to reach out to local communities and promote enthusiasm for computer science.
Anas Mahmoud, faculty adviser for the Geaux CS program, selected computer science senior Kristen Barrett as the upperclassman administrative head of the program. From there, the grant proposal was organized, which required an itemized budget, outline of the program and school to mentor.
“We want to get them excited about computer science,” Mahmoud said, “and introduce computer science knowledge to high schoolers because research has shown that high schoolers, they know a lot about other disciplines, like math, or aerospace, or petroleum engineering, but not computer science.”
Barrett said the group selected McKinley High School based on its high percentage of minorities and students from low-income families. She said she was not aware of how few resources the school had and felt the school really needed a program like this.
McKinley administrators agreed, Barrett said, and the University was selected for funding. She said the program aimed to increase three things: a positive perception of STEM, but mostly computer science; diversity in the field; and college enrollment, especially in Louisiana.
The mentors said they felt diversity was important to highlight as a way of encouraging students. Barrett said each of the mentors also have other interests they are involved in or studying, including music, infrastructure, art and robotics.
“We [needed mentors with] different experiences because we knew that we’d have kids that maybe weren’t into computer science,” Barrett said. “Not everybody wants to make a video game and not everybody wants to do IT, so you need to make sure you cover those people and show them that there are other options.”
The semester-long project included 10 sessions. During these sessions, Barrett said technical skills like coding and putting together circuits were paired with soft skills, including presentation skills, how to find a job and assistance on getting into college or the workforce.
Barrett said communication skills are just as important as technical skills, whether students choose to pursue computer science or not. She said it was also important to discuss social and legal topics to keep students politically aware.
Computer science senior and co-administrator for the program Matthew Wolff said the students frequently ask questions that he and the other mentors take for granted, like whether or not Snapchat and Gmail hold onto users’ pictures and data.
Additionally, teaching the students the various skills were beneficial to the mentors, Barrett said.
“For those presentations, it’s a really good opportunity to let our mentors, who are mostly underclassmen, also get presentation experience and kind of like, stretch their soft skills out a little bit,” she said.
It is important to teach computer science because computer literacy is important in every job, Wolff said.
“It’s a very bad thing that it’s publicly acceptable to be bad at computers,” Wolff said. “Why is it OK to be complacent with being bad at computers when this is a digital society now?”
Jonathan Nguyen, computer science senior and administrative assistant for the program, added that it is important to teach students to gain a respect for the discipline, even if students decide to take a different path after graduation.
Barrett said the mentors wanted to teach determination, self-reliance and learning, independence and problem-solving skills to the students because they are skills needed in every job.
She said the students are expected to take a field trip to the University to listen to former McKinley students who are now students at the University. Barrett said that connection can inspire and encourage the high school students.
Though Barrett will graduate in May, she said the University plans to continue the program by reapplying for the grant next semester, and make some changes for improvement. The changes she said the program hopes to make include having more mentors, more money and more resources, like computers and different kits to use for the teachings.