Students Help Bridge the Technology Gap

Westmont computer science majors teach high school students about the benefits of programming computers

When junior Morgan Vigil graduated from high school in Merced, Calif., she had little experience with computer science. She says her Westmont education and major in computer science have changed her world-view so radically that she wants to share her knowledge of this exploding field with high school students.

In fall 2010, Vigil organized an outreach effort with alumnus Ryan Throop ’98, a mathematics teacher at Santa Barbara High School. Vigil and other Westmont students made presentations in Throop’s math classes, explaining their vision for an after-school computer science program. They went on to form a weekly club to discuss new trends in computer science with students at the high school.

Vigil says the Westmont computer science department emphasizes connections and communication and sees computer science as a way to serve others. “We were inspired by the need for computer science education at the K-12 level and considered how we could use our own resources and expertise to help local high school students,” she says. “We’re excited to market the program to a larger population — especially to women — to bring the field to demographics underrepresented in technology.”

In addition, the Westmont Computer Science program has loaned about 20 of its Lego Robot kits to the high school for its newly created robotics club.

“It’s particularly impressive how the Westmont students and the high school students have taken such ownership of the club,” says Kim Kihlstrom, associate professor of computer science. “It’s run completely by students. The Westmont students take turns planning the teaching and activities each week. And the high school students took the initiative to apply for official club status after the initial semester.”

Vigil says the demand for workers with technical skills continues to grow even with the economic downturn. “In spite of the potential, it’s extremely rare to find a technical program in the K-12 curriculum,” she says. “By introducing high school students to computer science we hope to interest them in an exciting field with a promising future.”

Kihlstrom says high school students aren’t normally exposed to the discipline of computer science so they don’t often think about choosing it as a major in college. “The need for computer science graduates is growing at a phenomenal rate, and there are not nearly enough students to fill the need,” she says.

“Careers in computer science are judged to be some of the best of any field.”
In fact, this year’s Jobs Rated report ranked software engineer as the number-one job based on five core criteria: Work Environment, Physical Demands, Outlook, Income and Stress. “Finding out about computer science could be life changing for these high school students,” Kihlstrom says.

The club has also proved beneficial to Westmont students who learn to use their gifts to serve the community while developing valuable teaching, communication, planning and interpersonal skills.

Westmont student Corey Watts ’11 has taken over the lead role of the club with assistance from Anders Wilson ’11, Tyler Naumu ’11, Asia Hall ’12, Austin Owens ’13, Katie Elliott ’13, Aaryn Smith ’11, Casey Ochs ’13 and Greg Sparks ’13. Watts says he has been impressed with how much the high school students have already learned.

“We’ve been teaching them the Ruby programming language this year, and they have become quite competent with it,” he says. “The students have a knack for programming, and we’ve been able to direct and encourage it. I’ve enjoyed the opportunity to share my passions with eager students while giving back to the community.”

Vigil, a National Science Foundation scholarship recipient, hopes to see the program continue educating teenagers while bridging the information technology gap in public education. In fact, she says the groundwork has been laid for the project to expand, enabling students from Westmont and Santa Barbara High to bring computer science material to junior highs and elementary schools in the local district. “A computer science curriculum is not something many schools in California can afford right now,” she says. “So why shouldn’t we — college and high school students — pull our skills and passions together and fill the need while the gap exists?

“Computer science is a field riddled with social justice issues such as access to information and gender and ethnic representation,” she says. “I hope the high school students we engage can enjoy a similar experience of being empowered and expanding their social vision as they learn more about computer science.”

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