Computer Science Orphans

I had a conversation with one one of the senior managers of the FIRST Lego League challenge. FIRST Lego League or FLL is a robot related competition for students in grades four through eight. I mentioned that I had been to the Maine State FLL championship  recently (Creating Engineers One Student At A Time) and found that there were many more FLL teams than there were high school FRC or FTC (FIRST Robotics Competition or FIRST Tech Challenge) teams for them to join when they moved up to high school. Apparently the FIRST people see this as a problem of FLL orphans – students who get excited about robotics in middle school and have no place to continue with this in high school. I recently reviewed a paper about a computer science outreach program for middle school students that shows some really wonderful results. Unfortunately some of those students, many in fact, will go to high schools with no computer science programs for them to continue with. There are some cases of high schools being drawn into adding computer science courses to meet the demands of the incoming middle school students. The same is true to some degree of FLL students helping to create new teams in high schools.  But this sort of thing is still an uphill climb.

Middle school is an important time for students. It is a tie when they are really starting to figure out what they are interested in doing with their lives. They are deciding what is fun, what is within their reach, and what they are motivated enough to do with their talents. They may decide that computer science (or math or science) is “hard” or “Boring” or both! Or they may discover that computer science is fun, interesting and even cool. Getting students interested in middle school is a great thing. But what will happen when they get to high school? Will they lose interest in computer science or robotics? If they do keep their interest how will they keep learning and developing? It can be hard for them. This is why I get requests for information about summer camps every spring for example. Or after school programs. Or just other ways that students can learn on their own. I wish there were ore high school computer science programs. But until there are we need to help those students who want to learn on their own do so.

This is part of the motivation (an important part) behind programs like DreamSpark and why it includes students who are not in university yet. It is why there are a lot of other resources for people to learn on their own such as:

It is always why I encourage high school students to work on their own to enter the Imagine Cup especially in the Game Design Xbox/Windows, Game Design Window Phone, Windows Phone Challenge and Information Technology Challenge. It’s not first about winning. Though we have had some high school students do very well. It is about using a project as an internal locus of control motivation to learn – to strive – to keep going and to do new things. Sure it looks good on a resume for college or for internships or part-time jobs. And yes it would be (and has been) awesome to earn a trip to the US finals (often at Microsoft HQ in Washington state) or even the world-wide finals (Australia this year). But win or lose working on a project that means something and has a tight schedule can act as a wonderful learning experience. If you don’t have a real computer science course to take and force a schedule it can be hard to keep up the learning on ones own. But a contest can help. Actually it can help even as part of a formal course. I know teachers who use the Imagine Cup as a project as part of existing courses. Every little extra incentive helps.

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