National Science Foundation Offers $2.7 Million
to Foster Kids’ Interest in Computer Science

Interdisciplinary Team to Work With Students in Richardson and Plano Schools

April 11, 2008

University of Texas at Dallas researchers hope to kindle middle school students’ interest in computer science through a new $2.7 million project funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Usually when kids start computer science the first thing they learn is a programming language, which can be both difficult and tedious,” said Jorge Cobb, the project’s principal investigator and an associate professor of computer science in the university’s Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science. “Instead, we want to emphasize hands-on activities and the application of computing to everyday life in order engage students and motivate them.”

Known as CHAMPS (CHallenging Algorithmics and Mathematics in Problem Solving), the five-year project will expose middle-schoolers to such things as the intellectual rewards of working with high-level algorithms, which students usually don’t encounter until college. Kids will also learn about important benefits of computer science, such as medical imaging, and they’ll have the chance to work on small robots and study computer graphics.

CHAMPS will launch after-school programs this fall in four schools: Wilson and Bowman middle schools in Plano, and Westwood and Richardson West junior highs in Richardson. The project team hopes to spark an interest in computer science among girls and ethnic minorities in particular, since they’ve been under-represented in the profession in the past. And teachers in the schools who work with the team will receive stipends for their efforts.

The program is in part a response to a precipitous drop in computer science enrollments in recent years. Some experts believe this could lead to a dire shortage of software engineers in coming decades, especially as many seasoned professionals retire.

“The number of people interested in computer science as a major has been dropping, and a lot of it is because of bad news that came out of the dot-com crash,” said Gopal Gupta, a UT Dallas professor of computer science and co-investigator in the project. “Parents don’t want to encourage their children to study computer science, but in reality the market was bad for only a year or two. Now there’s a mass scramble for graduates.”

The team hopes to motivate a larger number of students to choose computer science as a university major, he added, but he noted that the problem-solving skills developed during this project will make them better students regardless of the careers they choose.

Key to the team’s efforts will be recruiting eight graduate fellows a year and training them to teach computing and its associated mathematics to middle school students. The team will also enroll eight middle school math and science teachers a year in training programs designed by the researchers.

In addition to Cobb and Gupta, the interdisciplinary CHAMPS team includes Titu Andreescu, an associate professor of science education; Tom Butts, a professor of science education; D.T. Huynh, professor and head of the computer science department; Sook Kim, assistant dean for assessment in the school of engineering and an expert in research methodology; Dan Mullaney, former science chair at Westwood Junior High School; Simeon Ntafos, associate dean for undergraduate education in the school of engineering; James Wohlgehagen, director of mathematics in the Plano Independent School District; and Kang Zhang, a professor of computer science.

About the Jonsson School
With more than 2,600 students, nearly 100 faculty and over $27 million in research funding, the Erik Jonsson School of Engineering and Computer Science awards degrees in electrical engineering, computer science, telecommunications engineering, computer engineering, software engineering, and materials science and engineering. The school is named after Texas Instruments co-founder J. Erik Jonsson and pursues research in such areas as analog and mixed-signal circuits and systems; bioengineering; human communication technology; information assurance and cybersecurity; nanoelectronics; radio frequency and microwave engineering; and wireless communications engineering.


Media Contact: The Office of Media Relations, UT Dallas, (972) 883-2155, newscenter@utdallas.edu

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CHAMPS principal investigator Jorge Cobb (center) and several members of his team, (from left) Gopal Gupta, Sook Kim, Simeon Ntafos and Kang Zhang.

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