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Computer Science Via Interactive Journalism

December 12, 2009

An innovative project teaches students computer science skills by creating an online magazine

Do only computer scientists need an education in computer science? In today’s innovation-driven economy, the answer is ‘not anymore’.

Since the skills learned in computer science, like complex problem solving and analytical reasoning skills, are important for building a foundation for numerous careers including jobs in science and technology, as well as jobs in marketing, journalism and the creative arts, most people will need an education in computer science. Even though the United States is a leader in the field of computer science at the college level, most middle and high school students receive no exposure to computer science. One major obstacle to educating young students in computer science is finding a space for a computer science class in an already overburdened K-12 curriculum.

Ursula Wolz, researcher from the College of New Jersey, developed an innovative solution for providing students with an education in computer science with the support from the National Science Foundation (NSF). Unlike traditional computer science courses where students learn computer science programming through a textbook, Wolz and her team decided to take advantage of how 21st century journalism is becoming more dependent on computer science. Wolz and her colleagues started a summer institute and an afterschool problem where students learned computer programming skills while developing an online magazine.

The summer institute not only exposed the students to computer science, but also attracted them to computer science through the interactive journalism, which showed the students that computer science skills are needed in a number of different professions to solve a diverse set of real world problems.

In their project, which is funded by the NSF’s Broadening Participation in Computing program, Wolz and her colleagues designed an Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers (IJIMS). IJIMS is a partnership between The College of New Jersey and Fisher Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey. They recruited middle school teachers, mostly language arts teachers, for a one-week institute where they learned how to create an online magazine.

During the second week, the teachers were joined by rising 8th grade students and the teachers became mentors to the students. During the two weeks, the teachers and students learn how to use Scratch, a graphical, syntax free, computer programming language. Since coding in Scratch is done with graphical blocks that snap together, much like LEGO bricks or pieces of a puzzle, it is easy for computer programming novices like middle school teachers and students, to learn how to program interactive animations and videos.

During the summer institute, students researched, prepared interviews, videotaped, edited the interviews and developed Scratch projects to supplement their stories with animations or games. At the conclusion of the two weeks, the teachers and students had developed an online magazine.

There were 16 students in the first summer. By the second summer institute, the number of students had increased to 30. This strong interest in the project led the teachers and students to develop an afterschool program to run the online magazine during the academic year. The articles developed by the students for the online magazine concern a diverse set of issues. Articles span from interviews with the city mayor to articles discussing complex issues like the death penalty and animal rights.

Wolz and her team wanted to use the summer institute and afterschool program as a way to expose students to computer programming, teach them a graphical computer programming language, show them how computer programming is used outside of traditional computer science areas and to increase the students’ confidence in their ability to use computing methods.

The researchers surveyed the students to see whether they had achieved their goals and discovered that they had been very successful. The survey found that students had changed their perception about computer programming.

After participating in the summer institute, the students no longer held several common beliefs about computer programmers, like computer programmers work by themselves or computer programmers are not creative. The survey also found that after participating in the summer institute, the students reported that there was a similar relationship between computer science and journalism.

Finally, the survey found that after participating in the summer institute, the students reported a significant increase in their competence in the area of computer science. At the end of the summer institute, there were a larger number of students saying that they could create a computer program as compared to the first day of the summer institute.

This unique project is a solid example of how to teach computer science skills and attract young students to computer science by using a non-traditional computer science field. By implementing a computer science curriculum outside of school hours, Wolz and her team found a solution to the problem of implementing a computer science curriculum without removing courses from the curriculum or increasing the curriculum load.

In addition, this project demonstrates how to teach the skills learned by computer science such as complex problem solving and analytic skills by using a non-traditional computer science problem. The researchers taught computer programming to students by using the real-world problem of how 21st century journalism is becoming more interactive. To work in this new interactive journalism field, a 21st century journalist will need the computer programming skills required to create animations and videos to accompany their stories.

Image Caption: Students participating in the Interactive Journalism Institute for Middle Schoolers (IJIMS), an NSF-sponsored program. IJIMS is a partnership between The College of New Jersey and Fisher Middle School in Ewing, New Jersey. They recruited middle school teachers, mostly language arts teachers, for a one-week institute where they learned how to create an online magazine. During the second week, the teachers were joined by rising 8th grade students and the teachers became mentors to the students. During the two weeks, the teachers and students learn how to use Scratch, a graphical, syntax free, computer programming language. Since coding in Scratch is done with graphical blocks that snap together, much like LEGO bricks or pieces of a puzzle, it is easy for computer programming novices like middle school teachers and students, to learn how to program interactive animations and videos. During the summer institute, students researched, prepared interviews, videotaped, edited the interviews and developed Scratch projects to supplement their stories with animations or games. At the conclusion of the two weeks, the teachers and students had developed an online magazine. Credit: Ursula Wolz

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