Introducing Kids to Computer Science: Lessons from Kidzfest 2013

kidzfestLewis University has been sponsoring an event for the City of Joliet called Kidzfest for the past several years. The very first Kidzfest was held in 2005. This year’s Kidzfest, the 8th annual one, was held on Saturday, August 3, in downtown Joliet.

Lewis’ Department of Mathematics and Computer Science has been sponsoring a booth at Kidzfest every year since it began. Back in 2005, our technology club, Prometheon, brought some video game consoles, some desktop computers on which we loaded some educational software, and a big arcade cabinet Prometheon members had built out of of black-painted wood they crafted themselves. Over the years, our booth has evolved to have less of a gaming emphasis, as we’ve made more of an effort to provide hands-on programming opportunities for the kids, particularly through the use of robots.

I don’t think the crowds have ever been as big as they were this year, which meant our volunteers, including senior Math / Computer Science double major Vanessa Basick, were really busy from start to finish. It was exhausting. And never has 83 degrees felt so hot.

But you know what? It was worth it. To see the kids’ faces as they controlled the robots around the track we constructed was quite a thrill. To answer their questions about the robotic crafts the girls who had participated in our recent Girls Create with Technology Camp made was a lot of fun. It felt like we were doing something important and worthwhile.

It was also a little sad. When I asked some of the kids if they had ever played with robots or tried programming a computer before, several of them said that their schools had horrible computers and all they ever did was use Powerpoint or Word. I wasn’t surprised by this, but I still find it worrisome. Kids are quick learners, and yet we don’t challenge them when it comes to computing. Instead, we promote this mistaken mindset that computers are just tools and that we can rely on the smarter people who understand how they work to transform them into precisely the tools we need.

This is quite unfortunate. Why not make these kids be the toolmakers? Why not foster in them that kind of understanding? Why not make them the programmers who turn these amazing scientific instruments into tools others can use? After all, they grow up with the technology. Shouldn’t they be the ones to shape it, too?

Kidzfest 2013 was another success. Our booth attracted a lot of inquisitive and excited kids and their parents. But it also raised a number of questions about why we shortchange our children when it comes to computer education.

 

Ray Klump

About Ray Klump

Professor and chair of Mathematics and Computer Science Director, Master of Science in Information Security Lewis University http://online.lewisu.edu/ms-information-security.asp, http://online.lewisu.edu/resource/engineering-technology/articles.asp, http://cs.lewisu.edu. You can find him on Google+.

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