Summer Program Sparks Teens’ Interest in Computer Science Careers

Aug 3, 2011

By UCLA Samueli Newsroom

Tucked away on an underground level of Boelter Hall, the Center for Embedded Networked Sensing (CENS) hosts a conference room gathering where six computer science researchers discuss a cell phone application they are developing. The application, Another Man’s Treasure, will create a network where anyone can search a database for abandoned items they might want to pick up and claim as their own.

Dependent on “participatory sensing” or information from people who use their mobile phone and other web-based technology to collect and share data about their world, the application will rely on contributors to list items they want to give away or find abandoned somewhere. What makes this team of researchers unusual is that they are writing computer code at a level well beyond their years. That’s because most are high school students from the Los Angeles area.

The students are a part of the CENS High School and Undergraduate Scholars Summer Program. Funded by the National Science Foundation, CENS opens its doors every year for eight weeks to a select group of LAUSD, private school and college students who get a chance to use UCLA’s computer science research facilities and learn programming languages like Java and XML. CENS not only prides itself on providing most of these students with their first, hands-on experience in computer science research, but also for serving underrepresented students not typically drawn to science or computer science careers.

Underrepresented and female students are encouraged to apply to the program, which offsets the cost of attendance by providing participants with a stipend and covering transportation costs. Two-thirds of the youths in the program are underrepresented students, and two-thirds are young women.

“We’re trying to get students excited about computer science and increase participation of underrepresented students and women in future careers,” said Karen Kim, education director at CENS.

While this year the group is comprised of 15 high school students and three undergraduate students (two from UCLA and one from Harvard), many of these students are meeting others interested in computer science research for the first time. The program allows for a relaxed social environment where students not only work together in teams to develop their applications, but enjoy free time together to network with their peers.

Nick Davis, a Westchester High School student in his second year with CENS, said the program “eliminated my stereotype of computer science,” a sentiment echoed by other students who were deterred from a career in computer science because they thought they would spend their days in a dark room by themselves writing computer code.

Mentored by two undergraduate computer science students from UCLA, the scholars are guided in groups through the development of their own participatory-sensing cell phone application, which they can then put on the market or continue to craft after their eight-week summer internship at UCLA ends.

The program provides “a realistic and exciting experience in computer science,” said Kim, and the students “appreciate the fact that they get hands-on research opportunities tied to social problems they’re interested in.”

The problems this year’s groups are tackling range from the reuse of abandoned items through Another Man’s Treasure to the sharing of bicycle routes through an application the students are working on called CycleCENS.

Five students are hard at work on an application called What’s Hazardous, where individuals can report hazardous situations in their area like broken tree branches and gaping potholes, which will then be reported to governmental authorities. It’s a process the the students researched and found to be so laborious that people often choose not to report dangerous sites.

They’re excited about giving their cell phone ap a “gamelike functionality,” to motivate people to report and rate more and more hazardous sites in order to win points for them on the network’s user ranking system. High scores will unlock customized avatars or personal pictures that will give the user a unique identity.

Another group of students is developing an application called Help the Homeless, where people can submit known locations of homeless individuals in order to provide nonprofit organizations which help the homeless with real-time information about their whereabouts.

Molly Cinnamon, a Harvard-Westlake High School student, said she was worried the summer program would be extremely formal and in a strict, working environment. She hailed the social aspect of networking with her peers in computer science as one of the best parts of the program.

Jesse Zhang, a high school student at the California Academy of Math and Science, shared her excitement. He said that the summer program offered an incredible group-bonding environment that enriched the lab research experience.

The CENS program “opened up my career pathways,” said Zhang, who is now looking forward to a future in computer science.

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