Dave Chesney, lecturer, Electrical Engineering and Computer Science
I'm responsible for K-12 outreach for our department, so I spend a lot of time in local schools. I also try to shape my course projects so that they have some social value rather than just be contrived projects. For example, in my Software Engineering course we've built tools to help kids with cerebral palsy. I think that we -- the collective "we" -- owe something to society. It doesn't matter too much what specific area we choose to provide that service -- just as long as it's something.
Over the past academic year, I received a grant from Microsoft to introduce one of their new products, called Kodu, to elementary-age kids. Kodu is a new visual programming language made specifically for creating games. It's accessible to children, and anyone can enjoy it. I worked with a 4th-grade gifted and talented class using both Kodu and Alice, a programming language that my elementary kids really enjoyed learning about.
As I mentioned about my Software Engineering course, we've worked on projects for local school districts for students with cerebral palsy. Some examples include building a two-button interface for writing and sending emails. We also build a TI-83 graphing calculator emulator for a student who had normal cognitive abilities but some physical disabilities. Worded differently, she was doing math at grade-level, but just couldn't press the small buttons on a TI-83 calculator. We simply made the buttons bigger in software on a computer screen.
I have children. More specifically, I have three wonderful daughters. They're fortunate enough to be in a gifted and talented program at their respective schools. But the current percentage of female students in my college courses tends to be about 10 to 15 percent. That leads to the ask: Where have all the women gone? My outreach into K-12 is focused on trying to increase that percentage.
In my Introduction to Engineering course, we've had "Gaming for the Greater Good" for two years now. A favorite game of mine is one that teaches high-school and college women how to avoid assault. This game won a prize in a national competition at the University of Illinois. There have also been games on teaching algebra, teaching physics such as optics and lasers, teaching electrical circuits, and teaching handwriting skills. I'm always amazed at the creativity of the students in the course.
One of my favorite extra-credit assignments is called "Random Act Of Kindness." Students have to perform an anonymous act of kindness, preferably for a stranger. It must cost less than $5. The students came up with some really creative responses. For instance, one of them built a candy tree on Central Campus with full-sized candy bars hanging like fruit on a tree. The student put a sign on the tree: "Random Act Of Kindness, please take one candy bar." Another student put a $1 bill under a random dorm room door. One student gave all of his goose-down -- everything: coat, quilt, boots, gloves -- to the homeless person who lived near his apartment. One student sold $1 bills for 25 cents. Students really seemed to respond to this assignment. It gives them an opportunity to make up for the bad grade on another assignment that they may have bombed.