“Hey, kids! Want to do some computer programming?” crickets chirping
“Hey, kids! Want to make a movie like Toy Story?” thunder of tiny feet clamoring for a seat at the computer
Caitlin Kelleher has learned that getting kids interested in computer science is all in the ask — and the action.
Through her research on kids and computer programming, Kelleher, who is the Urbauer Career Development Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science & Engineering in the School of Engineering & Applied Science, has proved that if you can get kids to try programming in a creative space, a lot more of them enjoy it than expect to.
But amping up student excitement for programming is only half the challenge. Because computer science is not required per K–12 education standards in most states, few elementary- and secondary-education teachers are qualified to teach computer science — let alone the kids’ parents.
Her current project, Looking Glass (lookingglass.wustl.edu), works to solve both problems. Through Looking Glass’ online community, kids learn from one another and online tutorials to pick up the basics of computer programming while creating an open-ended story. With the Looking Glass software, they build short animated movies — visiting with aliens, navigating a school cafeteria, and throwing a surprise party (to name a few of the adventures they have created and shared) — blissfully unaware of Kelleher’s ulterior motive: to raise a generation of kids that has basic programming skills.
Kelleher has been focusing on recruiting kids for programming since her graduate-school days. Her dissertation project, Storytelling Alice, was a software program for middle school girls that put them in charge of a storyline, with them controlling the gallery of characters, social interactions and scenery.
The girls loved it. Compared with those playing with a version that didn’t support the storytelling feature, the Storytelling Alice users spent 42 percent more time programming, were three times as likely to sneak extra time to work on their programs (16 percent vs. 51 percent), and expressed stronger interest in playing with Alice in the future.
Kelleher was inspired in her work by Randy Pausch, her PhD adviser and a pioneer in the field of human-computer interaction (known, too, for his inspirational book The Last Lecture: Really Achieving Your Childhood Dreams). Kelleher says, “Randy provided an important model of how to do research that touches the world today — and why you might want to.”